Special Olympics Michigan inspires hope and confidence in participants and volunteers.
The Special Olympics were established in 1968, and Michigan was one of the states to take part in the inaugural National Games at Soldier Field in Chicago. Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI) is now one of the largest Special Olympics programs in the nation.
According to Aaron C. Mills, public relations and social media manager for SOMI, Michigan’s first State Summer Games took place at Western Michigan University in 1969.
“In 1972, Special Olympics Michigan moved its headquarters from Adrian to Mount Pleasant,” says Mills. “Three years later, in 1975, SOMI and Central Michigan University hosted the fourth International Special Olympics Summer Games, where athletes from all over the world competed.”
The Special Olympics are designed to inspire hope, confidence, and courage in children (8 years of age and older) and adults with intellectual disabilities. The games undoubtedly change the lives of the participants, and have a profound effect on the coaches, families, volunteers, sponsors, and others who have had the opportunity to take part in the program.
“We currently have 20,752 athletes involved in Special Olympics Michigan from across [the state],” says Mills, who quickly adds, “and we’re always looking for more! We have a YoungAthletes program for children ages 2 – 7 that helps introduce them and their families to the Special Olympics network.”
The state of Michigan is divided into 37 areas—some encompass multiple counties and some just a single county—based on population.
Athletes practice and compete both individually and on teams in their area on a local level. From there, they compete in larger events that are held regionally. The next step is competing at the state, national, and world levels.
Mills says the largest state event each year is the State Summer Games held on the campus of CMU. Last year marked the 30th year with SpartanNash as the presenting sponsor of the State Summer Games. A total of 2,829 athletes competed, the highest turnout in eight years. An additional 3,400 coaches, volunteers, chaperones, family members, and spectators also attended last year’s games.
Special Olympics Michigan offers a total of 22 Olympic-style individual and team sports during summer, fall, and winter competitions. Sports include alpine skiing, aquatics, athletics, basketball, bocce, bowling, cross-country skiing, cycling, figure skating, flag football, golf, gymnastics, horseshoes, poly hockey, powerlifting, snowboarding, snowshoeing, soccer, softball, speed skating, volleyball, and weight lifting.
Similar to the modern Olympic Games, participants receive medals for first (gold), second (silver), and third (bronze) places during competition, while ribbons are awarded for fourth through seventh places.
Volunteers are the heart and soul of SOMI. In addition to the nearly 21,000 athletes who compete in the games, the organization also has 20,000 volunteers who help with a bevy of duties. Some will volunteer at one or two events a year, while some volunteer year-round. All coaches, area directors, referees, judges, and umpires are volunteers. The people standing at the finish line cheering on the athletes are volunteers, too.
“Through Special Olympics, athletes gain self-confidence and prove their own capabilities,” says Mills. “Special Olympics Michigan is not just training for sports—it’s training for life.”