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What I Learned From Coaching the Special Olympics

This article was written by Hannah Burleigh, a senior Occupational Therapy major at Elizabethtown College.

This semester, I had the opportunity to do children’s Special Olympics Swimming to complete a Level I Fieldwork requirement for my occupational therapy degree. I was a little apprehensive at first, because as many know, children are not my most favorite population to work with in the entire world. However, this experience changed my life, and I hope to educate others about this important competition for adults and children with disabilities.

The mission of Special Olympics is to “provide 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 participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community” (“Our Mission,” n.d.). This program inspires its athletes to gain confidence, improve their health, and inspire a sense of competition. It provides a focus on what these athletes CAN do, rather than what they can’t (“Our Mission,” n.d.).

I have had an amazing experience being the coach of two individuals competing in swimming. I had never taught swimming in my life, so this was certainly a challenge for me. The most experience I have had with swimming was receiving lessons myself when I was younger, so it was definitely a learning curve. However, the other coaches provided us with a quick education on teaching children and I could also rely on the other coaches who had more experience than I did. I have had one particular experience with a swimmer that will stick with me forever as a Special Olympics swimming coach. Due to my swimmer’s hard work and determination (and hopefully my coaching skills), my swimmer won two gold medals and one silver medal at his first swim meet. We found out together that football was one of his favorite sports, so my OT brain added this into his swimming lessons. This activity helped him to become more motivated to swim and meet his personal goals. There was nothing better than watching him succeed at this swim meet and seeing the smile on his face after each race. It was a great feeling to know that I had helped my swimmer to feel more confident in the pool.

Madelyn Baker, who is one of my personal friends and in my OT senior class, provided me with some great information on how OT and Special Olympics are closely related: “From an OT perspective, working with Special Olympics is a space for individuals to participate in sports at every level of group functioning. SO meets athletes at their level of functioning and allows them to be successful while aiming to advance them to the next level, much like a well-run therapeutic group. For me, I am so passionate about volunteering with Special Olympics because I am an athlete myself. I know how important it is to have fans at a game, and I want them to get that same experience. I am able to immediately form a connection with an athlete because we share a similar passion.”

As many of you know, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to eliminate $18 million of the Special Olympics fund. However, from my research, this cut mostly will not likely happen, however we should still be concerned that this was even a thought of the Trump Administration (Collins, 2019). If this budget cut were to go into effect, participants in Special Olympics could lose a very important social participation aspect from their lives. From talking with another student, Allison Plotts, she stated: “Not only will the athletes lose interaction between others with similar disabilities, but they will lose that precious interaction with other athletes supporting them.”

Being involved in Special Olympics changed my life. There is nothing better than seeing your swimmer accomplish their goals or seeing other people with disabilities coming together to support and compete with one another in a way that is also good for their mental, physical, and social health. I hope that this article will inspire you to do your research, get involved in this amazing organization, and help with the fight against defunding this important program.


Collins, M. (2019, March 28). Get rid of the fat: Why Betsy DeVos’ plan to slash Special Olympics funding probably won’t happen. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/28/special-olympics…

Our mission. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://www.specialolympics.org/about/our-mission

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