In six weeks, more than 100,000 athletes, coaches and fans will converge on Central Florida for what will be the largest United States Special Olympics in the 54-year history of the competition.
In addition to exposing the region, organizers expect the week-long event to have an economic impact of $60 million.
“We are absolutely thrilled and honored,” said USA Games President and CEO Joe Dzaluk. “This is the first time the games have been held here in Florida, even though we have one of the largest Special Olympics organizations in the country in our state. We’ve simply never had the opportunity before, but we know that, for the athletes and some of those watching, this is going to be life changing.
Walt Disney World Resort hosts games June 5-12 for athletes with developmental disabilities and offers its 220 acres ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex as one of the main venues for competition.
But other events will take place beyond the theme park – including the opening ceremonies at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, tennis at the USTA Lake Nona National Campus, equestrian competition at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, swimming at Rosen Aquatic and Fitness Center at International Drive and triathlon at Lake Minneola Waterfront Park in Clermont.
With planning in the final stages, organizers have recruited about 8,000 volunteers, but another 4,000 are needed. They will do everything from welcoming families at the Orlando International Airport to serving lunches, counting points and handing out medals.
“We don’t assign shifts because we want people to choose what works for them and do what’s important to them,” said volunteer Sara Hurst, who will help manage the volunteers. “We want their volunteer experience to be fantastic. »
Hurst, a 52-year-old executive secretary at Walt Disney World, is so passionate about the cause that she takes a week off her annual vacation to participate.
“I’m a sports enthusiast at heart,” she said. “I love competition, although I’m not necessarily athletic myself, but I love watching these athletes. They might not win first place, but the fact that they go out and try with all their heart, and leave it all on the field, it just makes you happy to witness it.
Volunteers must be at least 15 years old by June 5, and those under 18 must have a parent or legal guardian complete their registration and hand-sign their waivers. (For more information and to register, go to 2022specialolympicsusagames.org.)
Orlando was selected to host the event after previous quadrennial United States Games were held in Seattle, New Jersey, Nebraska and Iowa. The first international Special Olympics games were held in Chicago in 1968 after Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a summer camp for mentally challenged youth at her home in suburban Washington, D.C.
At the time, it was a monumental change in attitude. At this stage, parents whose children had intellectual disabilities were encouraged to place them in institutions, and the children were often kept secret or isolated at home. Many authorities at the time assumed that these children lacked the ability to learn or develop skills.
Dzaluk, a former CFO of AA Metals and a senior IBM executive, said the Special Olympics movement continues to break down barriers. These games, for example, will be 50% larger than the 2018 games in Seattle, and they will introduce four additional sports: horseback riding, open water swimming, competitive cheerleading and surfing.
The latter will take place in one of the largest wave pools in the country at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon.
Sherry Wheelock, president and CEO of Special Olympics Florida, said she expects the event to be “awesome.”
“The USA Games will provide a huge stage for our athletes to shine and will be a tremendous economic engine for the region,” she said. “We are absolutely certain that the games will be an unforgettable experience for everyone.”
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The games will also serve as a major athlete health initiative.
“Our community is not getting the attention it should have on health care,” Dzaluk said. “So the week of June 5, we hope to do at least 12,000 medical examinations on the athletes who are here.”
Athletes will be screened for dental issues, vision and hearing loss, and foot problems, among others. In Seattle, for example, more than half of the 4,000 athletes wore the wrong shoe size.
The games will also have an international flavor for the first time. Because Caribbean countries are often too small to host their own national games, Dzaluk said, they were invited to participate. Twelve, including Haiti and Jamaica, accepted.
There are no admission fees for fans except during the opening ceremonies, and you may be able to catch some legendary athletes. Maitland’s Chris Nikic – the first person with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman triathlon – is set to compete in a shorter swim-bike-run event.
“We want everything to be perfect for our athletes,” Hurst said. “Because for some of them, it’s something they’ve been training for for years. It’s the greatest thing they could ever do. And we want it to be the highlight of their lives.