Virtual MOVEment to #ReturnToPlay

A Summer Games Recap by Madison Mangum

As athletes, parents, spectators, and volunteers arrived at Towson University for the 2021 SOMD Summer Games, many waited anxiously for Opening Ceremonies to begin so athletes could start competing for the first time in over a year. As part of our health and safety protocols, everyone in attendance at Summer Games wore a mask throughout the event to assure a safe environment for competitors, but even so, you could feel smiles under everyone’s mask as the athletes were able to do what they love. 


Our athletes were supposed to kick off the SOMD Summer Games at Kiwanis Park in Ellicott City on Friday, June 11th, 2021, but due to inclement weather, the Softball competition was canceled. As much as we wish that we could have kicked off the games with Softball, our athletes had an incredible and historic season! Nancy Schmidt, a SOMD Softball Coach from Harford County, is looking forward to catching up with the athletes and giving everyone high fives! Nancy has been participating since 2005, but when asked a favorite memory she’s had of experiencing inclusion, Nancy said, “The Unified® experience is a truly great one when you get to really play together. To bring folks together and play sports is uplifting.”  As we #ReturnToPlay Unified® Sports is an incredible opportunity to emphasize the importance of spreading inclusion. When asked if the pandemic has made Nancy realize anything about SOMD, she replied, “The pandemic has reminded me that we NEED Special Olympics for this population. The athletes have been missing one another and that need for a social connection whether it be with other athletes or partners and coaches.” The athletes were able to get a taste of competition without restrictions at the Softball qualifier, where they showed off their softball skills they learned over the course of this season! We are excited for our softball athletes to return without restrictions next year and to get back to other sports they participate in this summer!


The playing clocks on the Bocce courts started shortly after the lighting of the Flame of Hope at 9:30 AM on Saturday, June 12th. Athletes were energized and ready to compete, every roll of the ball would result in the noise of celebration whether for their own roll, their competitors, or their Unified® Bocce Partner! Athletes from Baltimore City, Frederick, Carroll, Montgomery, and St. Mary’s competed against one another for the first time in over a year! Greta Harrison and Nicholas Chomiak have been a Unified® Bocce team for the last 3 years, and friends since meeting 10 years ago at an Interscholastic Unified® program. Greta has been a constant participant in SOMD events, and Nicholas is what keeps her coming back! When asked about her favorite memory at a SOMD event, she said, “All of my best memories are with Nicholas, I can’t think of a specific time but hanging out with you guys and the other athletes, it’s pretty cool.” 


After the first session of Bocce was completed, the Cheerleading opening ceremonies began, and cheerleaders made it down to the waiting area to await being called to the field. Athletes from Calvert, Howard, and Montgomery counties were ready to show off their routines, and all of the hard work they’ve put forward during the pandemic. Alexea Wentz, a Cheerleader from Calvert County has been competing for the last 7 years with SOMD. Alexea was so proud of all of her team’s hard work to get to the Summer Games! Her favorite part of being on the team? The hard work that they put in together! Alexea was most excited to perform with her Unified® Cheerleading Team, which includes individuals with and without disabilities. She feels the environment has only encouraged inclusion like she’s never felt before, when asked to describe the inclusion she felt, Alexea said, “Since I started till now, everyone that has come in has included me and made me feel special and not judged for who I am and that just makes me so happy!” 


After the conclusion of the Cheerleading portion of Summer Games, Law Enforcement Torch Run Executive Council member and SOMD Summer Games volunteer, First Class Sergeant Timothy Hughes had just finished handing out medals at the awards ceremony. Tim had just handed various cheerleaders gold, bronze, and silver medals for all of their hard work, and although Sgt. Hughes is excited to be handing these medals out, he wishes he could be placing them around the athlete’s necks. He spoke about looking the most forward to next year’s Summer Games because, “a normal Summer Games, where we can actually present the medals to the athletes, as opposed to them taking it off the tray.” Timothy has been participating with SOMD because of the kindness he experienced from an athlete while on bike duty at the Law Enforcement Torch Run 19 years ago.


Although the athletes were very excited for the Summer Games, the parents were arguably more excited than they were! After a year inside, athletes’ parents have seen their child lose their support system, access to daily exercise, and social time with friends. Parents like Diane Richardson shared that her daughter struggled to adjust to life inside, but that is what made the athletes #ReturningToPlay that much more special. Towson University hosts many Special Olympics Maryland events throughout the year, and student-athletes will volunteer for clinics or volunteer at events like the Summer Games to stay involved with the athletes. Diane Richardson is also known for being Head Coach of the Towson’s Women Basketball Team, and members from her team were volunteering on Sunday for the Track and Field portion of the games. When talking to Diane about Inclusion at the Games, she spoke about the importance of Inclusion, “because it makes everyone feel good, whether you’re a Special Olympics athlete or not, everyone wants to feel like they belong.” She added, “the environment at SOMD, they make sure that happens, that we all feel included and belong.”


Our Track and Field athletes kicked off the day with the 400 meter run. From new participants to seasoned competitors, 95 athletes competed in various Track and Field events from Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, Carroll, Charles, Howard, Montgomery, and St. Mary’s counties. Thomas Smith was one of the 95 participants, as a competitor for the last 16 years, he was extremely eager to return to competition in a few of his favorite events, running and shot put. Lavonne Smith, his mother, expressed appreciation for SOMD and the #VirtualMOVEment. Lavonne said, “The pandemic began, and one thing that made the largest difference was that something was always happening online for athletes to participate in or host, this kept everyone connected.” Lavonne said, “We are so grateful, that they didn’t just drop all of the communications with the athletes, because they couldn’t do anything. But the #VirtualMOVEment had social clubs and dances. The classes they’ve been holding have kept everyone together, it felt like there was some normality when there was none.” Although grateful for the virtual events, it still doesn’t compare to seeing your friends face to face. Lavonne explained the joy she felt to just be sitting in the stands, she said, “because of the pandemic year, athletes would have competed against each other 2-3 times by this point of the year, but due to the pandemic, it’s the first time they’ve seen their friends face to face in over a year, they are so happy to be back together.” 


35 athletes dove back into the water on Saturday, June 26th, 2021 for a long-awaited return to the pool at Great Mills Pool in St. Mary’s County. Our athletes were so grateful for the opportunity to be back in the water. Due to swimming being an indoor sport, COVID-19 made it even more difficult to host any sort of in-person practice or competition, which is why the SOMD staff chose a safer route for the event by separating swimming from the other Summer Games sports and changing its usual competing spot in Burdick Pool at Towson University. Instead, St. Mary’s County swooped in and were excellent hosts at the Great Mills outdoor Pool. One of these 35 athletes who competed was Health Messenger, Chris Dooley. Chris volunteered at our Hydration Station at the Summer Games, and was so excited to be back in the pool competing, even if it was just for a few events. Chris said the one thing that he is most excited to do normally once given the okay by Governor Hogan is to, “Just the smiles under the mask and the competition.” We couldn’t agree more, as we continue to #ReturnToPlay, the other most awaited thing by all coaches, volunteers, athletes, and staff are all ready to give high fives and hugs again, and we can’t wait for the opportunity to hug our athletes again. 


Lavonne Smith wasn’t the only Summer Games attendee to applaud the #VirtualMOVEment for its ability to keep the community stronger than ever. Coach and volunteer of 16 years, Kathy Zubeck, also spoke about the incredible job that Special Olympics Maryland did during the pandemic year. She said, “It means so much to us as a community, it was really hard. We did zoom, we did practices via zoom, we had engagements via zoom, we had dances via zoom, all of that kept the community together and it was really nice. I can’t say that there has been any other community that has stayed this tight throughout the pandemic as Special Olympics Maryland.” In addition to Social Clubs that would focus on a specific topic, hobby, food, dance, and more, SOMD offered multiple workouts for ALL ability types, meditation sessions, Coffee Chats, and much much more. This MOVEment was created in hopes to give the athletes a few week’s worth of activities in quarantine, but after learning this would be longer-term, various members of the staff worked hard to keep events happening throughout the pandemic so athletes would be able to stay connected and healthy! Alexea Wentz also spoke towards the positive effect that the Virtual MOVEment had on her, as an active participant and host of some of the virtual offerings, it gave her an outlet, she also shared her gratitude for the staff’s efforts over the last year. Alexea said, “the SOMD staff have worked really hard in providing virtual activities and different virtual movement things throughout the pandemic, and there are all these people that work really hard for us to be able to do Special Olympics sports.”

As we begin to return to full in-person activities and reduce some of our #VirtualMOVEment events, we are grateful for our athletes, parents, coaches, supporters, and anyone else who attended a virtual event over the past year. Thank you for showing up for our athletes who were presenting, speaking, or just participating. This year has been challenging for everyone, from our athletes being stuck inside to trying to creating fun and entertaining events, we couldn’t have made it through the #VirtualMOVEment without our SOMD family, we had an incredible #ReturnToPlay and we are looking forward to more competitions.