Some of the best athletes in the Upper Cumberland region were on Tennessee Tech University’s football field recently competing in a variety of events, including wheelchair races, the mile run, the softball throw and the long jump.
More than 300 people of all ages came to compete in the 38th annual Special Olympics at TTU.
“Special needs athletes don’t always get the same opportunities as other athletes, but when they’re here, they feel like they can do anything. It empowers them,” said TTU graduate student Meagan Nay of Nashville. “They just really want to be here.”
Nay has helped with the Special Olympics since she was an undergraduate student in the exercise science, physical education and wellness department at TTU. She has continued her graduate studies in the department.
She is not the only one who comes back year after year. About 100 TTU students and more volunteers from the community help, and many have been doing it for years. A TTU alumnus, George Walker, who now teaches at Cumberland University started helping when he was an undergrad. Now he brings a team of his students with him.
Many of the athletes return again and again, some for decades.
But LeBron Bell, EXPW professor, has been volunteering the longest. When the state started organizing regional competitions nearly 40 years ago, Bell was asked to help. Organizing the events and cheering on the athletes as the Special Olympics area director, he’s been a fixture on the field ever since.
“I like working with these special athletes. They’ve been a real source of joy in my life,” Bell said. “It’s the real joy of competition here.”
Athletes participated in dozens of events, winning ribbons and bragging rights at the end. Every year, several will qualify to the statewide competition in Nashville. A few even go on to compete in the international Special Olympics, and at least one is a reigning champion, according to Bell. Calvin Jones of Sparta has won the Tennessee Special Olympics state championship in power lifting several times.
“They train just like other athletes and they develop skills like any other athlete,” Bell said. “I’ve seen some athletes, when they start swimming, for example, they’re afraid to put their head in the water.”
“After weekly training in the TTU pool, some have gone on to win medals in state competition,” he said. “The coaches are the heroes; they’re the ones who work with these athletes every day.”