The Olympic spirit is in the air for the upcoming Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, but a special group of athletes competes twice a year in the Special Olympics summer and fall games held in June and December. These year-round sports programs, in more than 11 sports and competitions serving 375 Santa Barbara County children, teens and adults with intellectual disabilities, were highlighted at the Special Olympics Santa Barbara Fourth Annual “Inspire Greatness” Luncheon held at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens.
The event was a precursor to the bigger Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games held in Long Beach during a busy June, providing forums for skills and avenues for success and fulfillment.
“The luncheon was about recognizing our athletes, coaches, volunteers and Santa Barbara County law enforcement for all of their efforts and contributions to our organization,” said Ashley Haug, regional sports manager for Special Olympics Santa Barbara. “The athletes work hard at practice and compete with determination all season long in preparation to win the gold at the State Games in Long Beach.”
The luncheon at the Courthouse Gardens began with welcome messages from Aaron Brown, Leadership Council chair, and was followed by words from Goleta Police Chief Ugo Butch Arnoldi and Capt. Dave Whitham of the Santa Barbara Police Department, who previewed an annual event that provides a “Flame of Hope” for recipients of the Special Olympics programs and services.
“The Summer Games is a pretty big event for the Special Olympics overall, and a lot of our athletes get chosen to play,” Brown said. “So it’s not an automatic that they’re going to go every year, and it’s a very important event for the Special Olympics and the athletes. They get to stay in Long Beach for three days and stay in the dorms at Long Beach State, which is a really cool experience for the athletes.”
Arnoldi and Whitham previewed the Torch Run that occurred a week after the luncheon, as the torch was carried all the way to the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics Summer Games held at Cal State Long Beach.
The honor of participating in the Torch Run was shared by many local supporters, including the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, the Santa Barbara Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the county Probation Department, the District Attorney’s Office, UC Santa Barbara Police and California State Parks.
“Through their Tip-a-Cop dinners, the Torch Run and other fundraising events, law enforcement are the largest financial donors to Special Olympics,” Haug said. “This support allows us to offer high-quality sports programs to our athletes and their families at no cost to them.”
Later, at the luncheon, Special Olympics Santa Barbara Regional Director Sara Spataro spoke of building community before some athletes and volunteers received awards of recognition and gratitude.
Spataro spoke of the spirit of the Special Olympics through competition, inclusion, community and volunteerism.
“What stands out for me today is the spirit of the athletes,” she said. “Unique talents and abilities and excitement to compete at the Summer Games; 1,000 athletes and volunteers create a small city of Olympic determination, courage and joy at Cal State Long Beach.”
The first award of the day was presented by athlete Nanette Clark to Collin and Justin Nathanson, who were announced as Outstanding Youth Leaders.
“I think the award is great because there’s so many volunteers. and the fact that me and my brother were awarded this for our participation is wonderful,” Collin said.
The Nathansons, from Carpinteria High School, have each volunteered for the past two years with basketball, with more than 150 hours of volunteer time working with the athletes, and Spataro shared the inspiring tone of their commitment.
“When asked about why they volunteered, they replied that their late mother instilled in them the value of helping others and getting involved,” Spataro said.
Next, Brian Medel, special-education coordinator and school psychologist for the Hope School District, received the Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award, and was followed by an award to Ted Rudolph, who has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 24 years, receiving the Athlete of the Year honor for his sportsmanship, team leadership and attitude.
“The award was a huge surprise and a huge honor,” Rudolph said. “I had no idea I was going to get this kind of award, and I really enjoyed everyone speaking about me. I appreciate all their support and dedication as a team and as an organization, and they’ve inspired me to become a better athlete and keep improving.”
Spataro also mentioned upcoming strategic plans and goals for the organization to serve every special education classroom in the county through the school games and to involve families in programs for their children to participate in athletics.
The luncheon also included keynote speaker John Moore, Westmont College head men’s basketball Coach, and Luis Quintanar, parent of 14-year old Special Olympics athlete Christian from La Colina Junior High, participating in his second year of the Special Olympics. Christian, who is autistic, regularly participates in tennis, volleyball, bowling and track and field, and won a gold medal that qualified him for golf at the Long Beach event.
Quintara shared his enthusiasm for the games with Noozhawk and was excited to see his sons joy and success with the Special Olympics.
“As long as the kids participate, changing life through sports is the most important thing and I’m excited,” he said. “I’m excited for him and for all the kids who are going.”
Christian backed up the enthusiasm for the games and his opportunity to make friends and participate by exclaiming that the games were “so cool” and “wonderful and fantastic.” Christian followed his joy at the luncheon with a second-place finish in the navy-blue division of alternate shot team play golf at the Summer Games held later in Long Beach.
Guests enjoyed a delectable lunch during inspiring stories from presenters and honorees. An appetizer of tortilla chips included fresh salsa and guacamole, plus a choice of barbecue tri-tip and boneless grilled chicken breast was provided with roasted red potatoes, grilled asparagus and Caesar salad with homemade garlic bread.
For more than 40 years, Special Olympics has been changing lives with organized sport and competition since Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the organization. Unique programs serve to enhance this mission, such as the School Partnership Program assisting more than 200 children with special needs from 30 special-education classrooms.
The competition continues later this year as Special Olympics Southern California’s second-largest annual competition, the 2012 Fall Games, will host more than 1,100 athletes from throughout Southern California in Fountain Valley and Irvine featuring six fall/winter sports, including bowling, floor hockey, soccer, softball and volleyball.
“Sponsors, community organizations, individuals, foundations and 150 volunteers help to make Special Olympics possible in the Santa Barbara area,” Spataro said. “Together we can empower the 375 participating athletes to become productive, included and respected members of our community through sports training and competition. Our Special Olympics athletes represent the best in athleticism, sportsmanship and determination.”
The fourth annual “Inspire Greatness” luncheon was made possible by the gracious celebration sponsors: