Celebrating growth and success through the Special Olympics in Lycoming County

PHOTOS PROVIDED Shown, the Special Olympics Lycoming County teams pose at the Swim-A-Thon.

As the Special Olympics celebrates 50 years as a national organization, the local chapter reflects on their time serving Lycoming County for more than 30 years, said Marc Follmer, manager with Special Olympics Lycoming County.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for young and old athletes to participate and be involved with training and competition in Lycoming County and we are proud to boast there is never a charge for athletes to compete,” Follmer said.

Nationally, the Special Olympics began in 1968 when their founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, wanted to help “people with intellectual disabilities” through sports, the Special Olympics said.

The Special Olympics “teaches them. It gives them friends of their own. It gives them a place of their own,” said Pat Turner, mother of Roger Turner, an athlete in the Special Olympics Lycoming County. “They are coming there to learn skills.”

Athletes have the chance to get out of their shell, which is what the Special Olympics did for Roger, he said. They are able to make friends from across the state and country, not just their county, and keep in contact by texting or emailing, Pat added.

Roger now serves on the athlete congress, Regional Input Council (RIC) for the Special Olympics and is an athlete leader for Lycoming County, Follmer said. An athlete leader teaches other athletes how to be a leader in their community. Roger competed in the Alaska World Games in 2001 for Skiing, Lester Loner, coach with the Special Olympics Lycoming County, added.

Some parents that enrolled their children in the program may think their child may not be competitive but once they are working with a coach and are surrounded by their friends they get into the competitive spirit, Pat said.

“It’s athletes like Roger,” Loner said. “Most of them are very dedicated in what they do so they’ll give you their best effort all the time but they have fun … like everyone else but the main thing is they understand that it is a sport, it is competition.”

When the Special Olympics first started in Lycoming County it was part of BLaST Intermediate Unit, Follmer said. Due to a change in national rules, Special Olympics was no longer offered in the area, Loner added. To be an accredited organization the Special Olympics needs summer and winter sports. BLaST offered summer sports at the time.

“In 1989, there was a little advertisement in the newspaper and it said they were looking for people to get involved with Special Olympics, try to get the program back up,” Loner said.

Athletes have to train for a minimum of eight weeks to compete at in the Special Olympics and have the chance to train longer, Loner said. They can participate in more than one sport but can only compete in one and have to choose a team or sport. Athletes compete against others with their same abilities.

In the ’80s, students would compete with one another as a part of P.E. and they would go to Loyalsock or South Williamsport high school tracks to compete. There wasn’t training then, Loner said.

Over the years, the Special Olympics Lycoming County has had numerous athletes participate in U.S. Games and World Games, such as Erin Erdman, Kevin Boyles and many other athletes, Follmer and Loner said.

Since 2016, the Special Olympics in Lycoming County has steadily grown in numbers. In 2016, there was 32 volunteers and 90 athletes; in 2017, there was 52 volunteers and 106 athletes; and in 2018, there are 74 volunteers and 112 athletes, Follmer said. Not everyone is active but the majority of athletes do have gold medals and ribbons. Also since 2016, coaches Tammy Powel and Michel Klees have received Coach of the Year.

A new addition to Lycoming County’s sports includes power lifting which started in 2016 and is hosted at the Fitness Factory as a way to provide another opportunity and sport for athletes, Follmer said. The Fitness Factory provides its facility for free to the athletes. The

county now offers 14 sports.

Continuing with their growth, the Special Olympics’s basketball team grew out of their basketball half court and now plays at the Salvation Army gym, Follmer said. The team went from 10 players to 20. In addition to basketball, the soccer and volleyball teams are also gaining popularity again. One of their most popular sports is bowling.

Athletes can be “children and adults with intellectual disabilities” that are 8 years and older, the Special Olympics said. There also are athletes in their 60s, Loner added. There now is a Young Athletes program, too, for children ages 2 to 7 to begin playing and develop their basic motor skills, Follmer added.

Another opportunity for athletes to participate in is Unified Sports, a chance “individuals with intellectual disabilities (athletes) and individuals without intellectual disabilities (partners) to play sports together,” the Special Olympics said. Family members can become unified partners, too.

Locally the organization has not celebrated the 50th anniversary but is planning on attending a leadership conference this August in State College to celebrate their national anniversary with other athletes, team members and volunteers from around the state, Follmer said.

“There are moments when one athlete will fall, you’ll see an athlete stop and help them up in the middle of a competition or race … and they’ll take off again. That in itself is really part of the magic of Special Olympics, the compassion. If humanity was like that all the time, we’d have a much better world,” Follmer said.

For more information, to volunteer or sign up, visit solyco.org or email mfollmer19@gmail.com.