Just under a year ago, the Special Olympics College at Colorado State University was preparing for one of their biggest and most anticipated events of the season: The Special Olympics National Basketball Championships in Kansas. That is, until current president Liz Belecky received a phone call that would change the club’s trajectory for the foreseeable future. The tournament had been canceled due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus in March 2020, much to the disappointment of the club’s board members, partners and athletes.
“That was a big bummer because we worked really hard to get there,” Belecky said in an interview with The Collegian. “It’s one of those things we go to every year.”
Nationals for Special Olympics basketball was the first of many cancellations Belecky heard of.
“We had the entire spring planned out, and everything in the fall was planned out too,” Belecky said. “We were going to hold the state flag football tournament here, but all of our summer sports got canceled as well.”
As the country and most parts of the world went into quarantine and other major sporting events were canceled, everyone had to adapt to life in a pandemic. The Special Olympics College at CSU rose to the occasion and adapted its events and activities to remain active in a safe and inclusive manner. Board members like Belecky put in a lot of hard work to organize safe and entertaining activities for members of the club.
“In the fall, we did a lot of bocce ball and flag football skills challenges, which were really easy to do in person while social distancing and adhering to other guidelines,” Belecky said. “This spring, we’ve mostly done virtual events. … We’ve done virtual workouts, virtual bingo, virtual sports trivia nights, and we’re working on a virtual arts and crafts event where we put together supply boxes and deliver them to athletes’ homes so we can put them together over Zoom.”
Activities like these helped to keep members of the club active and entertained, and now there is an opportunity for the athletes to finally be able to compete against other schools.
In conjunction with ESPN, Special Olympics Unified Sports will be hosting Virtual College Championship Week from April 12-16. The competition will consist of three categories: unified sports, inclusive leadership and social media challenges.
For the unified sports category, athletes have the opportunity to earn points by competing in esports, completing virtual workouts, making trick-shot videos and competing in virtual races that vary in distance.
The inclusive leadership category will see colleges earn points through hosting virtual hangouts, virtual karaoke or by doing arts and crafts and cooking healthy meals.
Athletes and colleges will also have the chance to earn points by completing social media challenges, like posting lip sync videos, having alumni engage with posts about the inclusion pledge and other video-based activities.
These virtual competitions are inclusive since anyone can hop on the computer and be there with everyone else, which is a fundamental principle of both the club at CSU and the organization nationwide.
“We’re getting so many more colleges involved,” Belecky said. “Usually, for something like the National Basketball Tournament in Kansas, only 20 colleges are able to attend in person, but now we have about 61 colleges signed up to compete during Championship Week, which is awesome.”
All this hard work is done with the goal of giving athletes a chance to compete in an inclusive environment while remaining safe during the pandemic.
CSU Special Olympics College athlete Ashley Wessel has been a member of the Special Olympics since she was 8 years old and said the pandemic made it hard for her to cheer on her favorite CSU teams.
“It’s been pretty bad because I’ve been trying to go to some soccer games and basketball games, but I haven’t gotten to because it’s been hectic with COVID-19,” Wessel said. “But my day program and other activities have started opening back up, so that’s good.”
Despite not being able to attend sporting events, Wessel enjoyed a lot of the activities that Special Olympics College at CSU has put on since the pandemic started and mentioned her favorite activity is flag football skill challenges. Wessel has also been competing with a bowling team over the last few weeks as a way to stay active.
Fellow athlete Tyler Andersen has also been adapting to some new activities.
“It’s been tough being under quarantine, but I do enjoy bike riding, going for a walk or run and just being outside in nature away from people to get some of my own time,” Andersen said.
Andersen has participated in Special Olympics activities since 2016 and says his favorite activity to do with the club is flag football. As the quarterback of the CSU team, Andersen enjoys taking on the leadership position of the team. Prior to the pandemic, Andersen traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, with his flag football team to compete in the Unified National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association tournament.
“I felt really upset and heartbroken because I really love playing with my friends and competing against other schools,” Andersen said. “And I missed hanging out and competing because I’m a big competition kind of guy.”
Nonetheless, Andersen finds enjoyment in the new activities the club puts on.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing flag football skills, and I’m really excited for the tie-dye event that we have coming up next week,” Andersen said. “I really enjoy just hanging out as a team and getting to meet new people.”
Other national events have been in the works as well, such as the NIRSA Esports Rocket League Championship, in which there are Unified Divisions for Special Olympics athletes to participate in esports as a safe alternative to in-person competition. Hopefully, as restrictions are lifted and vaccines are made available, there will soon be more opportunities for in-person competition.
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people, but the members of Special Olympics College at CSU have not skipped a beat. Despite all the challenges imposed on the club, its members remain committed to promoting inclusion and competing and show no signs of letting up any time soon.