Waynesburg University’s basketball court echoed with dribbles and cheers Sunday evening as an enthusiastic band of amateur athletes practiced their moves.
They had come here from Washington, Greene and Fayette counties to warm up for the Special Olympics Invitational at Washington & Jefferson College beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday. It will be a day of basketball and swimming competitions to prepare teams and individual athletes to compete in the Summer Games at Penn State University from June 6 to 8.
“We’ve gone to state for four years now, ever since Shawn was 10,” Riana Journic said as her son, a ninth-grader at Jefferson-Morgan, streaked to the hoop and dropped the ball through the net. “He really loves basketball and this year he’ll be playing five-on-five instead of three-on-three because now we have enough players to play at that level.”
That’s Special Olympics jargon for advancing from a three-person team playing half-court to a regulation team, Journic explained.
Giving the healthy fun of organized sports to people with a wide range of developmental challenges is the goal of Special Olympics, which started as a summer camp in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s back yard in 1962. According to the organization’s web page, Shriver believed that “people with intellectual disabilities were far more capable in sports and physical activities than many experts thought” and her vision started a revolution.
The first International Games were held in 1968 and today more than 172 countries worldwide are involved. Pennsylvania hosted its first event in 1970 and now nearly 20,000 athletes compete annually at local, sectional and state competitions.
When retired ATF officer James Tanda became an instructor with Waynesburg University’s criminal justice department in 2013, he and his students took the plunge into Special Olympics by making it a club project and sending teams to the annual Polar Plunge in Pittsburgh. The next year, Tanda helped reboot the Greene County Special Olympics program and his criminal justice student volunteers became mentors, coaches and program office holders. Thanks to the club’s fundraising efforts, busses are provided for athletes and their support people to attend competitions and volunteers who become part of the group activities receive reimbursement for their mandatory background clearances, Tanda pointed out.
“We’re looking for people in the community to join us and help this program grow,” he said.
The club team of 27 “mostly girl plungers” braved 28-degree water at Heinz Field this year and raised $4,000, a total of more than $30,000 since the school began competing in 2013, Tanda said.
“We came in 15th out of 98 teams and finished second behind Carnegie Mellon University ROTC,” he said.
The Plunge is a fundraiser for Special Olympics and regional teams represent law enforcement departments, high schools, colleges and universities that have taken on this project. After seven years of plunging and volunteering to train and transport athletes, Greene County’s Special Olympics has now joined with Washington County to share resources, Tanda said.
“We have the volunteers and they have the athletes we need to compete,” he said.
Greene County’s roster of athletes is small and ranges in age from 13 to 48, so the addition of Washington’s players is giving players like Shawn a chance to shine. Bringing the two counties together has also added volleyball to the roster for Washington County athletes and regional competitions include golf, softball, track and field and equestrian.
After Saturday’s invitational at W&J, teams will compete at Westminster College in Lawrence County on April 6 and Carnegie Mellon University on April 27 to qualify for the Summer Games.
To volunteer with Special Olympics or to sign up to participate as an athlete, contact Jordyn Wyllie at 724-372-9836