Special Olympics’ lasting lessons
Clarification: The Special Olympics team from Carroll County placed first against the Wildcats Sunday afternoon.
Years from now, Gary Johansen said, one group of young men will look back on Feb. 17, 2013, the day they played on the floor of Cassell Coliseum.
They’ll remember the bright lights, the fans and the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team cheering them on from the sidelines, but most of all, they’ll remember the life-changing lesson they learned playing among Special Olympics athletes.
Special Olympics Virginia hosted a Regional Basketball Tournament on Sunday at Tech. Twenty teams competed for a spot in next month’s state tournament in Fredericksburg. One of those teams might have been without a competitor if it hadn’t been for Johansen’s Wildcats Blacksburg recreation league team.
Shortly after moving to Blacksburg in 2002, Johansen said, he felt like something was missing from his life.
So he picked up the phone and called Nancy Morehouse, director of the Southwest Region of Special Olympics Virginia, and became a volunteer.
“I believe I was born to help others and give back,” Johansen said.
In January 2003, he started as a volunteer player, playing among Special Olympics athletes on unified teams, which consist of both volunteers and Special Olympics athletes. Last year, he started coaching, and this year, he serves as both a player and a coach. Aside from basketball, he’s also been involved with track and field and softball teams.
Johansen, 43, also finds the time in his busy schedule to coach two recreation league teams, including the Wildcats, which Amy Stevens’ oldest son, Jordan, plays on.
“He’s the kind of guy that helps you get better and better,” said Jordan, 11.
As a parent, Stevens said she respects the way Johansen interacts with the young players.
“He doesn’t stand and power over them,” she said. “He’s very encouraging, and because of him, the kids know there’s more to sports than winning.”
Such a lesson is why Johansen’s Wildcats didn’t hesitate to give up their blue ribbon Sunday afternoon.
Before the tournament, Johansen found out that a Special Olympics team out of Carroll County didn’t have a team to go up against. The coach was quick to call upon his young rec league team to fill that void.
The team showed up Sunday ready to play, but more importantly, ready to encourage and rally behind the other athletes.
“Not only did they play basketball, they helped with individual skills and helped record their scores,” Johansen said.
Jordan and his younger brother, Caymen, both participated. The experience, their mother said, is one they’ll never forget.
“It was really … by far the best lesson they’ve ever learned, sports-wise,” Stevens said.
At the end of the tournament, the rec league team handed over their blue ribbon to their Special Olympics opponents and came up with individual chants for the players.
“Special Olympics brings out the champion in all of us,” Johansen said. “We’re all special and unique. We try to promote unity, inclusion and awareness, and my Wildcat team really got to experience that.”
Johansen’s dedication to and compassion for the organization is the reason Matt Adamo became involved about six years ago. Adamo and Johansen were coaching against each other in rec league baseball.
One day, Johansen approached Adamo and said, “You know what’s the life-changing thing? Special Olympics.”
Adamo is now a volunteer player.
“He’s a great guy,” Adamo said. “The athletes all love him.”
And Johansen loves his athletes.
“The players, they’ve changed my life,” Johansen said. “It’s not about volunteering anymore. Special Olympics is my family.”
Johansen and another Area 9 Special Olympics volunteer, Stacy Jones, were awarded Sunday for their efforts. In addition to statewide awards, the Virginia Farm Bureau annually recognizes one person from each Special Olympics area as Volunteer of the Year. Johansen was recognized for his role in coaching, and Jones for her broader activities within the organization, including her involvement on the local council and in the annual fundraiser Taste of Inspiration.
Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at Critzer Elementary School in Pulaski, has been volunteering with Special Olympics for four years. She’s been a volunteer coach and player in basketball, volleyball, softball, bowling, and track and field.
“Being able to help, teach and pass along my knowledge is only part of why I participate,” Jones wrote in an email. “I have a love for sports, but more than that, the friendships, trust, sincerity and uplifting experiences have made me come back for more.”
The award, she wrote, is really about the athletes and the friendships that have grown because of the program.
Next month, Johansen is taking two teams to participate in tournaments in Roanoke and Pulaski. He encourages the community to come out and cheer on the athletes.
“In order for Special Olympics to be complete, not only do you have to have athletes, you have to have the community and volunteers to make it work,” he said.
To learn more about how you can volunteer to cheer on the athletes, visit www.volunteer2cheer.com.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1679
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