From July 1–6, more than 4,000 athletes and coaches from across the country competed in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. The event was a great success. As a part of NIRSA’s ongoing partnership with Special Olympics, our Association was represented, integrally, by four NIRSA student flag football officials.

The lead for the officials—who also jumped in when needed to help officiate herself—was former NIRSA Championship Series Chair and Associate Director of Programs at the University of Alabama, Brooke Turner. “Being a part of the Special Olympics USA Games was an incredible opportunity both for our student officials and for me as a professional,” says Brooke. “Our officials did a great job learning and adapting to new mechanics and rules; as we knew they would. Each day was a chance to improve, and they took full advantage of it. As part of the 12-person officiating team, they were able to provide feedback to help improve the Special Olympics rules and mechanics for the future.”

Mia Stewart, official at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, offers advice to aspiring student officials.

Brooke also points out how “it was eye opening that without the NIRSA officials, there probably would not have been any female officials for flag football. I am proud that we were able to add to the inclusion revolution in this way.”

Strengthening NIRSA’s partnership with Special Olympics

Also present at the event to represent the Association were NIRSA Director of National Sport Programs Valerie McCutchan and NIRSA Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships Erin O’Sullivan. In addition to taking in the incredible athleticism on display at the games – including a collegiate Unified Flag Football Division—they were privileged to attend the Opening Ceremonies as Honored Guests and were invited to Special Olympics’ Future of Inclusion Forum  special event.

Working to further integrate the NIRSA and Special Olympics partnership, Erin and Val met each day with a different group from the Youth Leadership Experience. The Experience invited an athlete and a partner, both recent high school graduates with demonstrated leadership skills and a commitment to inclusion, from each state to experience all aspects of the Games—from marketing to operations. The hope was to both provide up-close work experience and to empower each of these young leaders to take the message of Special Olympics into the next stage of their lives, which, for the majority, was attending college. Erin and Val were able to inform the groups about not just the role of Unified Sports on campus, but also about the multifaceted nature and value-driven work of both NIRSA and the campus recreation profession.

About the Healthy Athletes Program

Another key aspect of the USA Games was the Healthy Athletes Program, which demonstrates how a commitment to wellbeing is a value shared by NIRSA and Special Olympics. Healthy Athletes provided screenings and information in seven health disciplines: podiatry, vision, dentistry, physical therapy/fitness, nutrition and healthy habits, audiology, and emotional/social wellbeing.

Thanks to dedicated volunteers and donors, screenings were not just evaluative – if athletes needed glasses they were provided with them on site; if they needed dental work it was completed on site. As added incentive, athletes were rewarded with a new pair of athletic shoes after completing four of the seven stations. In total, more than 1,760 athletes were screened for a total of 7,125 screenings.

Though the Games have come to an end, their impact certainly has not. NIRSA and Special Olympics are already looking ahead to and planning for the 2022 USA Games in Orlando. And, as Brooke points out, “the NIRSA student officials were excited to go home and find ways to get more involved with Special Olympics in their communities. I look forward to seeing how they impact their states and the influence they have on fellow student officials to continue to make a positive difference through sport.”

“Each time I am involved it inspires me to look for ways to become even more involved.”

This ripple effect of influence and change goes far beyond the USA Games, extending to the experience of Special Olympics, and even the broader platform of sport for all. “I love how Unified Sports are growing on our campuses and have been blessed to be a part of it at Alabama, for the state, at NIRSA tournaments, and now nationally with Special Olympics,” Brooke says. “Each time I am involved it inspires me to look for ways to become even more involved.”

NIRSA 2019 in Boston

Chairman of Special Olympics International, Tim Shriver was recently announced as the opening keynote speaker for the 2019 NIRSA Annual Conference & Campus Rec and Wellness Expo.