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Softball team practices for Special Olympics

BY TAYLOR AXELSON | JULY 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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The softball team practicing for the Special Olympics finally had a night of practice in which the temperature wasn't more than 100 degrees. There's a tournament this weekend in Cedar Rapids in which the Iowa City teams will compete against other athletes all with the same goal: to win.

The Special Olympics combine competitiveness with the goal of having fun and providing special needs athletes a place to play together.

"It's a hit or miss for us this weekend at the tournament. Sometimes we do really well, other times we don't," said Ben Gibson, the head of the softball program. "It's not all about competition, though. What is nice is that here in Iowa City, they have the Special Olympics all year long. They are able to get out and move and socialize with all their teammates."

Coaches work with some of the athletes individually during practice, while other half play as a team in scrimmages and game-situation drills.

The team has a roster of high-functioning, "awesome participants," said staff member Emily Pudenz.

Iowa City fields two teams: the Unified Team has both staff and special populations involvement athletes that play together, while the Iowa City team doesn't have staff on the roster. Both teams have the opportunity to compete at a regional and national level if they win the state tournament.

"I can't even make the Unified Team," Pudenz said. "It's too good for me."

The social aspect of being outside and running around the diamond with their friends is the best part of the program for the athletes. But the members are still a softball team. The athletes play catch and ran ground-ball drills just as any softball team would.

"I love playing softball. I get to hang out with all my friends," outfielder Mari Harms said. "We have a tournament this weekend. We actually win a lot, so I think, we're going to do really good, and I'm very excited."

With the smell of grass blowing in the slight breeze and the Sun shining perfectly bright from behind the clouds, the players started to practice their swings. They hit the softball off a tee into the fence while Gibson gave them tips on their technique.

The special Olympic softball players ran, hit, and caught with happy hearts. Any coach would enjoy coaching a team that is as enthusiastic and excited as these players were during practice.

"I enjoy all the participants I get to work with. You really get to learn a whole different side of people," Iowa City Parks and Recreation intern Emily Meyers said. "They enjoy this softball team socially. They get to see all their friends who they might not see otherwise. I think that they like improving their skills and being competitive at the tournaments and games on the weekend."

Iowa City is unique and becoming revolutionary in the Special Olympics field. The city organizes and funds the Special Olympics and the athletes who take part in the competition. In most places the money and support comes from an organization that is not associated with the city.

The city is investing well.

"This program is awesome for the kids. They need this. It gives them a feeling that they could do anything anyone else can do," said Kelly Cochran, the mother of one of the athletes. "Softball is my daughter's favorite. I'll be at her tournament this weekend. They like their parents to be there. They're proud of what they do, and I'm proud of what they do."


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