Kids push past limitations to compete in Special Olympics

Monday , July 11, 2016 - 12:00 AM

TX. Correspondent

Both the Paralympics and the Olympics are coming up this summer in Rio, but here in Utah, there are Olympics taking place each and every year.

On June 10, the Utah Special Olympics for summer events, with sports like track, long jump, ball tosses, wheelchair races and swimming, were held in Highland. Special Olympics is a nonprofit organization that offers sports for kids and adults with intellectual disabilities.

”(Athletes) have the opportunity to learn about different sports and be able to participate and compete in multiple sports,” said Justin Blackburn of Layton, who helps with Special Olympics in Utah, in a email interview. He added, “(They) have the opportunity to compete with athletes of similar skill level and ability. For competitions, the athletes are placed in divisions where qualifying scores are similar.”

The Special Olympics are open to any athlete, regardless of their physical or mental challenges.

“Special Olympics allows athletes the opportunity to begin at a variety of skill levels, and to progress,” Blackburn said. “An athlete can begin in a MATP (motor activity training program). This could be as simple as tossing a basketball in a container on the floor. The program can be designed to fit the needs of any athlete no matter how disabled.”

Special Olympics also offers developmental events, Blackburn said.

“This means on the track you can run a 25-meter run or you could participate in a wheelchair race or a coach-assisted walk,” he said. “For swimming, the distance could be as short as 10-15 feet rather than a full-length of the pool of 25 feet. If you are a great runner you can run as far as 3,000 meters or if you are an awesome swimmer you can swim a 200-meter event.”

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Blackburn shared the story of 13-year-old Gracie Hinds of Syracuse, an athlete he coaches.

“The first day she came to practice she fell on the track. This was because her muscles were pretty weak and just kind of gave way,” he said. “What is really amazing is how well Gracie did this season. At the state games, you have up to eight participants that you are competing against. Gracie took medals in all of her events.”

He added that Gracie cut her times in half and had so much strength that on her 50-meter run she didn't feel like stopping at the finish line and just kept going.

“She kept running for the joy of running and the joy of feeling strong and able to do this,” he said.

Blackburn’s daughter, McKenzie, is an athlete in the Special Olympics.He got involved with the group when she turned 8 in 2007, which is the age an athlete has to be to join. McKenzie started with soccer, and has gone into swimming.

“Special Olympics allowed her the opportunity to be introduced to swimming and learn to swim,” Blackburn said. “Even being totally paralyzed and hospitalized in 2009-2010 did not stop McKenzie from swimming nor did being cut from the swim team her sophomore year stop her. She realized her dream of being on the swim team this school year, 2015-2016 — her junior year.”

While the Special Olympics helps the athletes, it also helps the families. Families can interact and associate with one another who have athletes with special needs. They can learn valuable information from each other, and find resources, too.

“Everyone should know that athletes participating in Special Olympics work hard,” Blackburn said. “If you have the chance to come to a Special Olympics competition you will never see sport in the same way. The will and determination of each athlete is truly amazing. These athletes have so many things that could prevent them from achieving but they fight to move forward. While gait may not be steady, or a muscle’s movement is severely restricted, or paralysis exists, you will see these valiant individuals push past these limitations in the most unique and individual ways you have ever seen. The thing I always feel is pure joy that only exists in Special Olympics.”

Anyone can volunteer with Special Olympics to coach, or serve as a unified sports partner, working with an athlete. Health professionals also volunteer to help the athletes. Blackburn said volunteers in Utah contribute more than 300,000 volunteer hours annually at area and state competitions. Volunteers must go through a screening and training process.

Folks can also donate to the Special Olympics by visiting the website, The next events are a Siegfried and Jensen Utah Open fundraiser in Provo Aug. 22-28 and a Special Olympics Classic Oct. 14-15 at the University of Utah.

Blackburn said people with intellectual disabilities also want to be included and experience life to the fullest degree possible.

“My daughter with intellectual challenges and physical challenges amazes me every day,” he said. “She helps me appreciate just how lucky I am to be able to move about freely and be able to remember and think. She helps me to push through the hard things and never give up. She helps me to never give up on my dreams.”

Cathy Taylor will be a junior this fall at Syracuse High School. Email her at



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