For the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Special Olympics Louisiana hosted a full three-day competition at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond May 19-21.
More than 650 participants — including athletes, volunteers and coaches — turned out for the event.
Beginning with golf on the first morning of the competition, athletes participated in a range of sports including athletics, bocce, tennis and volleyball. According to organizers, the total medal count stood at an impressive 1,085.
John Guzzardo, president and CEO of Special Olympics Louisiana, said the competition’s return to full scale was welcome.
“It was a great weekend,” he said. ” A little hot, but that’s what you get at this time of year in Louisiana.”
Special Olympics Louisiana is a year-round affair, providing support and training for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. More than 8,000 people across Louisiana’s 64 parishes are involved, while help is provided by 6,000 volunteers. Health, education, leadership, family, training and sports programs are available for people beginning at the age of two, and there is no upper age limit. There is no cost to participate in Special Olympics.
Most of its sports are unified, bringing athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together on the playing field.
Guzzardo said Special Olympics Louisiana’s mission went far beyond the on-field competition.
“The work is truly to help (people with intellectual disabilities) and help change the perception of people with intellectual disabilities in the community,” he said.
Guzzardo said bringing people into the world of Special Olympics is important — so that others can experience the joy the athletes feel.
“In turn, it gives so much to others who are able to interact with them,” Guzzardo said. “Special Olympics is a lot more than this big competition just one weekend a year. We’re active throughout the year, with about 120 competitions throughout the state annually, on 600 school campuses and 13 college campuses. We provide health assessments and health work with the athletes and our partners as well.”
Suffice to say that winning isn’t everything.
“Obviously the competitive part is what the athletes are all working toward, but truly, when you come out to these events, coming out and being together is the best part,” Guzzardo said.
“Just for (the athletes) to be able to interact and be with their peers, and compete in their sports as well … I’d have to say the camaraderie is the No. 1 outcome.”