Two Orangeburg County residents are part of the third largest delegation attending the 2018 Special Olympic USA Games July 1-6, in Seattle, Washington.
Team South Carolina's delegation has 166 members including athletes and Unified Partners and coaches. Lillian Elmore of Orangeburg is competing in the sport of bocce, and Kurt Wyndham of North is coaching bowling.
“Special Olympics South Carolina believes in giving as many athletes (as possible) the opportunity to participate. For the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, South Carolina will have athletes and teams competing in 11 different sports,” said Leigh C. Lowery, SOSC communications director.
“Special Olympics South Carolina provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities,” giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and share their gifts and skills with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community, Lowery said.
“South Carolina serves 28,902 athletes. We also offer free health screenings through Special Olympics Health, have a Unified Champion School program in more than 280 schools around the state and have athlete leadership programs, where athletes serve in board positions and become self-advocates in their community,” she added.
“This is a huge honor for our athletes to be chosen, and they are extremely excited to get the chance to compete against athletes from across the United States."
‘I really enjoy playing’
Elmore, 19, is a student at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg.
Elmore, who is deaf, is a big fan of bocce, an Italian variety of lawn bowling. She was excited about the trip to Seattle, although this isn't the first time she's flown.
“I really enjoy playing that and socializing with my friends,” Elmore said of bocce. “I feel really good about it."
She said she is looking forward to making new friends in Washington.
Prior to leaving for the Special Olympics USA competition, Elmore had worked to improve her game with the help of her teachers and coaches, including "walking a lot after school to get in shape ... because we will have to do a lot of walking when we’re there."
Her teacher, Lesley Aycock, said Elmore and other students are prepared for the real world beyond academics at the South Carolina School of the Deaf and the Blind.
“We look at the whole student so we’re giving her life experiences as well as educational experiences to help her when she leaves school. That’s what we’re focusing on now. She gets to have input in her individual education plan development,” Aycock said.
“I ask her what she wants to learn and focus on for the future, and we are always talking about where she wants to work when she leaves school and what job she wants to do. We focus on helping her learn the job skills she thinks she needs to learn and not learn to help her become a well-rounded individual,” she added.
Elmore said the support of her mother, Victoria, has been “very important” in her life.
Aycock said, “Mom has had to attend meetings in Columbia and had to drive her daughter to meetings so that’s been very important to her and her education. Mom is fully supportive of Lillian’s school as well.
“If I ever need anything, I can call and email and get her help. She does what she needs to do to make sure Lillian is successful.”
Mrs. Elmore said she and her husband, Derrick, are very proud of their daughter and how far she has come since contracting encephalitis of the brain when she was just two months old.
“She is hearing impaired and has some other mental delays, but Lillian is a wonderful person to be around. And we’re very proud that she got picked to go to the Special Olympics in Seattle," she said.
“They said that she and her teammate were really good at playing bocce. So she is really excited about going. Me and my husband are very excited about her going and participating. It is a dream. We’ve always seen that Lillian can do anything."
Special Olympics Unified Sports brings together athletes with intellectual disabilities and athletes without intellectual disabilities to train and compete on the same team. Athletes and their Unified Partners are thus brought together on an equal playing field, Lowery said.
Mrs. Elmore said she is sure Lillian will be in good hands while in Seattle.
"I know that they will take good care of her because I’ve already asked that,” she said, noting that her daughter is no stranger to travel.
“We’ve lived in Germany before, and she’s been to California. So she has traveled on an airplane."
Mrs. Elmore said her daughter is being well-equipped for real life at the SCSDB, which she has attended since she was 10 years old.
“Lillian and the others get to participate in all kinds of different sports. They go to different outings, and she’s learning a work skill to work at Walmart. So they’re teaching her a lot of good things,” including how to cook, paint and make soap, she said.
“Lillian is a very laid-back student. She’s eager to please, and she’s always looking for ways to help in the classroom and show what she’s learned," Aycock said. "She likes to help our younger students with projects to kind of be a leader in situations like that, which she can be."
“Since I’ve gotten here several years ago, I’m very proud of how much she’s matured and grown as a student … . She’s telling you what she needs to be successful, which is a very important quality for any student to have. She’s come a long way," the teacher said.
‘It’s just a blessing’
Wyndham, a math instructor at the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School in Columbia, began coaching with South Carolina Special Olympics while working as a coach at Swansea High School.
“When I was at Swansea High School about 16 years ago, Beth Tuten, who was the special education (teacher) there, came to me and asked me if I would be interested in helping coach the Special Olympics,” Wyndham said.
He's continues to coach a Special Olympics team at Swansea High School.
“I think the first time we went to Greenville to the state Special Olympics (competition), and I have loved it from then on. I think I coached soccer that particular time, but I have coached bowling, basketball, soccer and some track and field. I have loved it ever since going to Greenville, Charleston and Columbia at Ft. Jackson, where they have the state competitions,” Wyndham said.
The special athletes exhibit a joy and enthusiasm that he simply loves, he said.
“I’ve coached other high school sports and even county ball, but these particular athletes are just enthusiastic about everything they do. You try to coach them on things, and they just love being taught. They learn and do it with open hearts,” Wyndham said, noting that the motto of the Special Olympics is “Help me to win, but if I can’t win, let me be brave.”
“And I really believe a lot of these athletes are brave in doing what they do. It’s just a blessing, and I think if everybody would go one time, they would love it … ," he said. "It’s hard work at times, but the fulfillment is watching the athletes smile when they achieve. They don’t even have to win. If they just place or do something, they’re just so enthusiastic about it."
Bowling is not the only sport Wyndham coaches with the South Carolina Special Olympics.
“In the fall when they don’t have bowling, I will do soccer or flag football. There’s two state tournaments, one in Greenville and one at Ft. Jackson. And usually the one in the fall is when I’ll coach either flag football or soccer," he said.
“I had the pleasure of going to New Jersey four years ago to that national (competition) as a bowling coach and thoroughly enjoyed it there."
Wyndham said he is most looking forward to "just meeting new people," at the competition in Seattle.
“I’ll get to meet new people from around the state, but also getting to meet people from around the United States - people from as far as California. When I was in New Jersey, I met some people from Alaska. That was pretty cool just to talk to them and see what they did in their games and all,” he said.
He has seen the athletes grow and progress through their participation in Special Olympics serving as a coach in Area 7, which consists of Lexington, Richland, Kershaw and Fairfield counties.
“It seems like they grow leaps and bounds … . They’re enthusiastic, they love what they’re doing, and we do have adult athletes from Area 7 who have gone through the program at the high school and the middle level who still participate. And it’s just great to see them grow older and just as a person,” Wyndham said.
He said the competition means a lot to the athletes but, as coaches, “It does mean a lot to us, too.”
“They’re just like athletes. They’re very attentive and enthusiastic in what they do. It doesn’t matter what it is; they’re just enthusiastically doing it, and that’s what brings joy to us," Wyndham said.
The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to 5 million athletes and Unified States Sports partners in 172 countries with a dedication to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition.