By Melissa Walton
The Special Olympics Michigan held its State Summer Games May 30-June 1 at Central Michigan University. Nearly 150 athletes and 60 chaperones from Area 19 (Calhoun and Jackson counties) participated. While I have been involved with Special Olympics for most of my life, this was my first time as a coach, and it turned out to be a life changing experience.
In February 2012, Albion College’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) invited the Area 19 basketball teams to a Britons’ men’s basketball game. More than 100 Albion student-athletes sat with the Olympians and cheered for their halftime exhibition game. This experience led SAAC members to look for further involvement with Special Olympics, and inspire me to tackle the position of volleyball coach.
From the beginning, I had great support from the Area 19 director, Danielle Hilliker. I also had a terrific coaching staff of six Albion students and staff. Each of our practices even had two volunteers for every Olympian because so many Albion students wanted to help!
Coaching a Special Olympics team at state games is physically and mentally exhausting. It's also very emotionally rewarding. During the three days of competition, I and two assistant coaches (volleyball athletes Jalyn Ingalls, ’14, and Melissa Wilson, ‘15) did the following:
• Watched the start of the Special Olympics torch relay in Lansing before heading to Central Michigan University
• Took the four athletes in our charge to the Healthy Athletes Village where they received free physicals, eye exams, and eyeglasses. (many other programs are available that you can see at http://www.somi.org/Get-Involved/Healthy-Athletes-Program.html)
• Participated in opening ceremonies
• Watched other Area 19 athletes compete in swimming, track and field, gymnastics, weightlifting, powerlifting, bowling, horseshoes and bocce ball
• Participated in closing ceremonies. We danced for two straight hours with athletes, coaches, chaperones and volunteers. Steve liked talking with the clowns in attendance, Brandon enjoyed talking with the beauty pageant queens who danced with us, Timmy enjoyed dancing with everyone and Tommy just wanted to introduce himself to every single person in attendance.
• We also attended an Area 19 pizza party with team awards
• I received and gave out so many hugs, that I lost count in the first hour I was there!
Of course we also played volleyball. The Falcons won the first game in a nail-biting five sets. After lunch, we played our final game and won in three. I was so happy with how much the team progressed from our first practice in April until the moment the gold medals were placed around each athlete’s neck. I have never been more proud of a team in my life.
To become certified, you can go to certification training for your sport or be mentored by a certified coach for 20 hours. I became a certified coach in April and my two Albion student-athlete assistant coaches became certified as well.
“Helping coach the Area 19 Special Olympics volleyball team was one of the best experiences I have had,” said Ingalls, who is also president of SAAC. “Although I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I am so glad I went with the team to state games. The athletes I worked with were so energetic and positive all of the time, and always willing to cheer their teammates on. It made me take a look at myself as a player, and what I can learn from them as athletes.”
This coming year, three Albion coaches will head two Special Olympics soccer teams with help from even more Albion student volunteers. I am hoping to have at least two volleyball teams next year. If Area 19 has a need, it is my hope that Albion College will be there with support.
I would like to thank Steven, Thomas, Brandon, Jed, Tommy, Steve, Timmy, Melissa, Brittany, and Blake for giving me one of the best experiences of my life. I was very humbled when players, at the conclusion of the gold medal game, hugged me and asked if I was proud of them. The truth is I was proud of all of them from the very first moment we met.
Melissa Walton is Albion’s senior associate athletic director. She served as head coach of the volleyball program from 2006-2011.