WAXAHACHIE — Arthur Moore confidently strode over to Jim Phillips, knowing he and his partner will find their way to tournament gold when the Fall Classic comes to Texas.
The Monday practice at the Waxahachie Country Club, though, was no normal outing for Moore, Rocky Riddle or the members of the Ellis County Special Olympics golf and swim teams.
It was to ready the athletes for two tournaments – one Sept. 10 in Dallas and the other Sept. 17 in Fort Worth – that will prepare them for the Fall Classic state competition in College Station.
“There is a Special Olympics delegation, which means they will either golf or swim — they also have bocce and softball — at the Fall Classic. Even though most of them are swimmers and golfers, the kids that are playing have to choose which sport they want to play at state,” said Jennifer Smolka, the head coach of the Ellis County Fireballs and director of programming for the Ellis County Miracle League, as she hurriedly scribbled numbers and figures on a small clipboard. “We’ll probably have about five or six golfers and swimmers who’ll go to state.”
The numbers she jotted down on her clear plastic clipboard were not only vital to each player’s individual progression, they set the level each will compete at during both tournaments and the team’s first Fall Classic.
According to Smolka, long and short putt, long and short drive and pitch and chip scores taken during practices directly reflect the level of competition they’ll face during tournament and state play. Unlike able-bodied sports, which are age grouped, special needs sports often group competition based on ability level, regardless of age.
“They’re going to play against kids who have the same sets of skills so you don’t have a ringer come in,” she said. “It’s not about chronological age, it’s about game-ability level. If they score 30 points in a tournament, they will play against kids who scored between 25-30 points. If you think about it like a game of darts, you get a point for anything you can do.
“For example, if they’re pitching, they get a point for hitting the ball. If they make it up and over, they get two points. If they make it into the circle and it rolls out, they get three points and if it stays in the circle they get four. They get five balls for that event and they are able to score up to 20 points.
“It’s really about them competing against themselves to get better. Even our kids who may start off with only two points get to a point where they’re hitting every ball and making all the balls into the circle. When you see a kid who’s really working hard finally get one in the circle, everybody cheers. There’s not a better moment. It’s awesome.”
Both the Fireballs and the Angels, the Special Olympics swimming team, pull homegrown talent from nearly every corner of the county. The talent comes from mid-sized cities like Midlothian, Waxahachie and Red Oak to smaller ones like Maypearl, Ferris and Italy.
She said one of the main purposes of both Special Olympics in the state and the Ellis County Miracle League — besides promoting sports in the special needs community — is to improve and build social relationships and interpersonal communication with children, teenagers and adults who have mental or physical disorders.
Adults like 19-year-old Italy native Katie Connor.
Connor was born with cerebral palsy. According to National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the incurable neurological disorder is caused by a non-progressive brain injury or malformation that occurs or appears during infancy or early childhood and permanently affects body movement, muscle coordination and balance.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes just with her being able to socialize with her teammates and to make friends, as well as it becoming easier for her to learn new skills,” said Summer Douglass, an educator at Howard Junior High School, about her daughter Katie Connor’s growth during her three seasons with Special Olympics teams in Ellis County. “It’s actually the first time we’ve seen her grow so quickly learning new skills.”
Whether in the present or the future, inclusion in Special Olympics events offers a lifelong benefit. According to a 2005 study done by the Special Olympics, more than half (52 percent) of polled adult Special Olympians in the United States are employed. Of that 52 percent, half are competitively employed.
Despite her disorder, it’s often difficult to spot the cerebral palsy in Connor at first glance.
“It’s really two sides of the coin,” Douglass continued, allowing a smile to beam across her face as her daughter came within inches of sinking her putt. “You don’t automatically assume she can’t do things — which is great because we want her to show us what she can do — but at the same time, people may not recognize she might struggle with something and not give her the opportunity to do something a different way. So it’s really great she’s in an environment like this. She’s certainly opened up to be able to make friends easier and be a normal teenager.”
Smolka said the team is still accepting golf club and putter donations as well as offering open invitations to those who want to help. She noted that as the players progress the need for more coaches and volunteers will become more evident.
Those who want to volunteer can go to the Ellis County Special Olympics Golf Facebook page, call Smolka at 214-228-7988 or email her at email@example.com.
“We really need people to help us keep score and give the kids that how-to-hold-the-club-right kind of feeling,” she said. “As our kids get better and better, they’ll compete in unified play — when a Special Olympics athlete is partnered with somebody without disabilities. Right now, we have Arthur out there playing his first couple of holes with Jim Phillips from KBEC and they will play level 2 unified play.
“This will be the second Fort Worth tournament we’ve been to and the first Dallas and state golf tournaments. We’ve only golfed for a year and we’re already going to state. It’s because we not only have players who like to do these sports and are good at them, they take the time and do what’s needed to get good enough to compete at state. We’ve had new volunteers come out – from Baylor Scott and White employees to high school students. Parents love seeing their talents come out and help their kids grow. There’s a big benefit in paying it forward and taking some of the blessings you’ve been given and spreading it onto someone else.”
Contact the Waxahachie Daily Light sports desk at 469-517-1454 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Khris on Twitter at @Khris2MarionWNI and the Daily Light on both Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation or alert the sports desk on Twitter by using #WDLsports.