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Special Olympics athletes switch to virtual competitions during coronavirus pandemic

Jul 21, 2020

Special Olympics athlete Jacob Booher-Babcock takes part in a virtual competition. "I'm a confident person, trust me," he said. "If I lose a game, I try to keep up the good work."
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News

Sweat trickled down Jacob Booher-Babcock's flushed face in the midday sun as he pushed through a series of sit-ups. His hands and feet touched at the top when he stretched his arms and legs into a "V" formation.

Jacob smiled when his coach, Martha Pachuta, told him he just set a new personal record.

Pachuta and Jacob's mother, grandparents, and a young cousin cheer him on as he takes part in a virtual competition in the circular driveway of his grandparents' Churchville home. Normally, the Special Olympics athlete would be performing before a much bigger crowd.

He misses that.

"They go, 'C'mon Jacob! Let's go!' And I get very emotional," he said.

Jacob Booher-Babcock and his coach, Martha Pachuta, do high-fives a little differently during the coronavirus pandemic, but the celebration remains the same.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

Along with so many other activities and events, Special Olympics games were put on hold this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While athletes like Jacob typically compete against their peers from across New York state in stadiums filled with hundreds of spectators and volunteers, they switched to virtual competitions in June.

Stacey Hengsterman, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York, said that's been a big adjustment for people with intellectual and physical disabilities who rely on the events for fun, fitness -- and maybe most importantly, a sense of community.

"They're doing great, but I think they're lonely for sure, and that's hard," she observed. "And I think they're worried about the future of Special Olympics and will it go back to the way it was before and they want everything to get back to normal. It will, but it will take some time, obviously."

Hengsterman said social distancing is a lot like the kind of social isolation that Special Olympics athletes know all too well. For some, it's often a part of their daily lives.

Jacob understands this.

"When I was in school," he recalled, "I didn't really have any friends."

Jacob Booher-Babcock says he misses the crowds of people who come to see him compete in the Special Olympics. "They go, 'C'mon Jacob! Let's go!' And I get very emotional," he said.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News

That was before an athletic director at Brockport High School suggested unified sports, where athletes with and without disabilities play on the same teams.

After discovering how much he enjoyed that, Jacob joined Special Olympics when he was 16.

Now he's 24.

"I'm a confident person, trust me," he laughed. "If I lose a game, I try to keep up the good work."

Pachuta has been a Special Olympics coach for 36 years. She said the program surrounds the athletes with a network of support.

"Not all of them have families, like Jacob, who are continuously supporting his efforts and his goals and his dreams," she said.

Thousands of Special Olympics athletes live in group homes, which until recently in New York, were off-limits to visitors because of the pandemic.

Coach Martha Pachuta works with Special Olympics athlete Jacob Booher-Babcock.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News

The organization learned early on in the coronavirus crisis that virtual training sessions, online healthy cooking demonstrations, and texting were a great way to continue providing vital social connections for their athletes.

Pachuta said they became more adept with technology.

"Knowing that they are able to do some type of exercise program somewhat on their own, I think, has been encouraging, because a lot of times they always had the expectation that they'd be doing it with a group or someone would be leading them," she said. "I think they've learned that they can do self-exercise and still improve their lives."

Hengsterman, whose 16-year-old son has Down syndrome, worries about the kids and adults with disabilities who aren't involved in an organization like Special Olympics, and what these past several months of the pandemic pause have been like for them.

"When we go back to normal -- whatever that is -- I just want to make sure we remember there are groups and communities out there that are still isolated and we have to work a little harder to make sure they're included," she said.

Jacob Booher-Babcock is relying on his family, his coach, and his love of sports to keep him busy and motivated.

He saved his favorite – basketball -- for his last virtual competition of the summer.

Jacob Booher-Babcock smiles during a break in his Special Olympics competition.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News

Back in the front yard of Jacob's grandparents, coach Pachuta counted down the number of times Jacob dribbles a ball in between two lines marked 10 paces apart on the driveway.

"Whew!" Jacob said, panting and wiping his brow. "I gotta catch my breath. My heart's beating pretty fast, but I know it's worth it."


This story is part of Move to Include, an initiative that uses the power of public media to inform and transform attitudes and behaviors about inclusion. Move to Include was founded by WXXI and the Golisano Foundation and expanded with a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.