Spring is usually a time of intense training for New York's Special Olympics Summer Games in June. This year was to be particularly special, as the largest sports organization for people with intellectual and physical differences celebrates its 50th anniversary. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, Special Olympics had to get creative.
Special Olympics New York annually serves 67,000 athletes across the state, supported by some 4,800 certified coaches and 37,000 volunteers. That includes 3,900 athletes and nearly 500 coaches from Western New York.
New York President and CEO Stacey Hengsterman said the statewide games may be most familiar to people, but the non-profit offers year-round sports training and competitions.
"A lot of people say, 'When are these Special Olympics?' But Special Olympics is every day," said Hengsterman, who has a son with Down syndrome. "We have training clubs and competitions and regional competitions and then statewide competitions."
Trainings, alone, could be 100 people in one gathering. With coronavirus in the air, all events and training have been suspended at least through May.
"Really where they're missing us the most is in the everyday," she said. "Just like any athlete, they have practices and trainings 2-3 days a week for their sport, and that's what we've had to suspend also."
Hengsterman said taking away those opportunities can be especially difficult for children and adults with intellectual and physicial differences to accept.
"The general population right now is feeling socially isolated. To be honest, our athletes feel like this every day, virus or no virus," she said. "The opportunities for them are limited every day. They are lonelier. They're missing us. They're more isolated than they've ever been."
She said Special Olympians are also among the most medically underserved groups in the world.
Despite the challenge, Hengsterman said her mission of inclusion remains. For the first time in its 50-year history, Special Olympics has created an online fitness video series in partnership with the WWE.
The "School of Strength" campaign workouts with varying levels of difficulty in flexibility, strength, balance and endurance exercises, accompanied by downloadable interactive toolkits for coaches and caregivers that feature recipes, a fitness tracker, games and health tips.
This is new for Special Olympics. Hengsterman admits, they were "not the most tech-savvy organization before" and the campaign start has been "a little glitchy," but they now proudly upload new material every day at 11 a.m. and the campaign goes live twice a week, including live workouts every Friday.
Hengsterman said the online campaign is not just a way to stay active, but a new way Special Olympics is building community and social change for a population tackling stigma and injustice.
"I don't feel that I am in a generation that is dealing with people, you know, yelling or saying, you know, disparaging things like they may have done 50 years ago using words that are disparaging. But it's a marginalized population and I don't think that people, in their gut, feel that they're equal," she said.
Hengsterman said her organization will take its cue from state government and Special Olympics International as to when activities can resume.
"When this virus ends, I want people to remember how it feels and remember there are still segments of the population - not just people with intellectual disabilities, but the elderly and others - and remember to take that extra step to make sure you're connecting with those who don't have connections as easily as we do," she said.