Editor’s Note: This continues our Celebrate Community series on nonprofit organizations that improve North Okaloosa County residents’ quality of life.
CRESTVIEW—Since 1969, Special Olympics Florida has provided athletes with special needs and disabilities an opportunity to excel.
The non-profit organization features athletes in a range of sports such as stand-up paddleboard, track and field, soccer, golf, swimming and flag football. Competitors can be as young as 2; there’s no upper age limit.
“We don’t look at their disabilities; we look at their abilities,” Special Olympics Florida Okaloosa County Director Pamela Sparks said.
Some of those abilities were on display Saturday for the county’s Summer Games at Crestview High School and Davidson Middle School. The games are one of several events the athletic organization schedules throughout the year.
“One of the most common questions we get is, ‘When is Special Olympics?’” Sparks said. “It’s not a one-time event; it’s events that are 365 days per year.”
One of the athletes for Saturday’s Games was Harrison Mauldin, who ran the 10-kilometer race. He has been nominated to compete on the national stage in 2018, according to Sparks.
Mauldin is one example of athletes achieving through Special Olympics. There’s between 100 and 200 roster athletes and 60-70 advancing athletes, Spark said. Roster athletes compete in Crestview or the Okaloosa County area but don’t travel to regional, state or national competitions. Those who do travel are called advancing athletes, Sparks said.
The organization also organizes “unified teams” for some sports. Such teams comprise a mix of special needs athletes and those without special needs. Soccer and flag football are two sports featuring unified teams, which still compete against “full teams”— a team whose full roster has special needs. A full team defeated a unified team 8-3 during a soccer match Saturday.
The organization starts working with children as young as 2 years old through its Youth Athletics Program for ages 2-7. From there, athletes can advance to the “Little Elite,” for ages 8-11.
“The Little Elite not only helps [young athletes] prepare but it helps get parents ready for their children to possibly travel for competition,” Sparks said.
Special Olympics Florida in Okaloosa County is made possible entirely by fundraising, donations, sponsorships and volunteers, according to Sparks.
The travel cost to compete in Orlando is about $3,500 per bus; that excludes lodging, food or other travel-related costs. Sparks didn’t have an exact number, but said yearly travel expenses approach six figures.
While traveling provides athletes further recognition and opportunities, Okaloosa hosts frequent events to ensure those who don’t travel can have a rewarding experience.
With the Summer Games wrapping up over the weekend, the organization’s next event will be March 29 as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The event starts in the Panhandle and in Key West with the torches meeting in May in Orlando.
The Crestview segment will start 8:30 a.m. March 29 at Publix and end at the downtown war memorial.
Okaloosa County athletes will also have the chance to participate in the Area 1 Summer Games on April 8. This is a regional competition featuring athletes from Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Escambia and Walton counties.