Young athletes learn to compete before Special Olympics

CHARLESTON — The Special Olympics Young Athletes Program made its debut at the state level during the mid-winter games held March 10 at The Citadel.

The program includes children with intellectual disabilities ages 2 to 7 in sports/play activities that introduce them to athletic competition prior to eligibility in Special Olympics at age 8. Marie Donnelly, youth director at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and St. Mary of the Annunciation Church, volunteered to run the program.

“It was a great place to see Christ in action,” she said during a phone interview with The Miscellany.

Of the 700 participants at Special Olympics, Donnelly estimated that 15 to 20 athletes were involved in the youth games. Their events included kicking a soccer ball in the goal, walking the length of a balance beam, running races, a tennis ball throw and a standing long jump.

The children wore bright green T-shirts and stood on the podium to receive their medals for participation, just like the older athletes, Donnelly said.

Sue Maner, vice president of programs/communications of Special Olympics South Carolina, said the Young Athletes event has been held on a local level for two years, but the March competition marked the first time it was held at the state games.

“The day was fabulous,” Maner said. “It was so much fun. Everybody was so enthusiastic — the athletes, the volunteers, the parents.”

Young Athlete events took place in Olympic Town, which is similar to the Olympic Village and is located, along with food and refreshments, in the middle of everything, Donnelly said.

The location was a magnet for other competitors and their parents, and Maner said it was a wonderful opportunity to show off the new program. It also allowed the younger children to see the events of Special Olympics and get a feel for what they will be doing in the coming years.

Games for the older athletes included the power lift, table tennis, basketball skills, team handball, badminton and masters bowling for participants age 21 and up.

A large contingent from the Catholic community helped at Special Olympics, Donnelly said.

Members of the Stella Maris youth group and Charleston Catholic School volunteered at the bowling event; the Cathedral men’s club oversaw power lifting; the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians helped with table tennis; and Bishop England High School volunteers conducted registration and basketball events.

Maner said the Young Athletes Program is significant in developing the motor tracking and eye-hand coordination skills the children will need to compete in Special Olympics South Carolina.

Local games are held in 16 areas across the state, where participants train and compete before moving on to the state level, Maner said.

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