Special Olympics athletes to fill IC


David Scrivner/The Daily Iowan
Jeff Farless practices the long jump in the Recreation Building on Wednesday
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Traci Long wore bright purple sweatpants and an infectious grin Thursday night in the University of Iowa Recreation Building at her twice weekly track practice. She sat and stretched her legs and listened to her coach with one ear while chatting with her peers about tennis matches.

On Saturday, the 38-year-old will return to the Special Olympics Midwinter Tournament for the third time to compete in basketball skills — there won’t be any track events.

But before she steps onto a court, the Iowa City resident will deliver an opening banquet speech to hundreds of her peers today. It’s not about who wins or loses, she will tell them. But rather, about the fun to be had and the friends to be made, she said.

This weekend, a record 950 Special Olympics participants will flock to Iowa City to pack the Field House alongside 700 volunteers and 400 coaches for the 22nd-annual event. The athletes will travel from all over Iowa, and roughly 600 of the volunteers are from the Iowa City community.

“I just love the Special Olympics because I enjoy being around the great people and having fun,” said Long, who will travel to the Special Olympics National Games this summer to compete in tennis.

Athletes can participate Saturday in cheerleading, power lifting, gymnastics skills, basketball games, and basketball skills. As the most popular events, basketball skills and games require participants to qualify for the Iowa City competitions.

Joyce Allard, the communications director for Special Olympics Iowa, said the event is an opportunity for the athletes to compete against their peers.

“They’re able to practice throughout the year and then enjoy reuniting with old friends,” Allard said.

The tournament is one of seven annual Special Olympics competitions in Iowa. Special Olympics have existed in Iowa and nationwide since 1968. The first international competition was held that year in Illinois.

Every year, the organization incorporates healthy athletes screening programs during the sporting events as well, including eye exams, physical therapy tests, and hearing tests.

This weekend, that will include bone-density tests, blood-pressure checks, and handouts of healthy snacks and sunscreen samples. And it’s all offered for free to the hundreds of athletes ranging in ages from 8 to 87, many of whom are low-income, said Kathy Irving, the director of the health program.

Mike Lightbody has coached Special Olympics athletes in Iowa City for eight years. He works with roughly 250 athletes year-round in every Special Olympics sport. It’s seeing the grateful reactions of his athletes at their events that keeps him volunteering, he said.

“Preparing for the competitions and getting to see all the hard work, the knowledge, and the excitement of the athletes accumulate to the day of the competition is very rewarding,” he said.

Jill Michalek happily joins track practice with Lightbody’s group, but the 26-year-old is most excited to show off her cheerleading skills this weekend. This will be her fourth year dancing and cheering with the organization.

“Special Olympics is good because it’s fun and it’s good exercise,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to get out and about and just enjoy ourselves.”

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