COLUMBIA — Sports have been a part of Shawna Fitzpatrick's life since high school.
Now 22, she plays competitively on teams through the Columbia Parks and Recreation department's adapted sports program — basketball, softball, volleyball and track. Volleyball is her favorite.
"I like to meet with my friends and teach them how to play because I've been doing it so long," said Fitzpatrick.
The adaptive sports program has existed in Columbia for more than 20 years with nine sports offered throughout the year. Right now more than 191 athletes participate in the program.
It is a major social outlet for the participants, all of whom have a developmental disorder.
The competitions take a backseat to the personal benefits gained by the athletes, said Jody Cook, a specialist in adaptive sports and recreation. She is in her third year working for the Special Olympics program with the parks and recreation department.
On the teams, they have the opportunity to thrive while learning teamwork and responsibility.
"I run a tight ship, and they respect that because I respect them," she said.
Fitzpatrick was born with hydrocephalus, a condition where the central characteristic is an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain.
Her father, Bryan Fitzpatrick, said his daughter was born with a number of health concerns including a genetic disorder, connective tissue concerns and a cleft lip and palate. Early in her development, her parents were told that she would never be able to hold her head up on her own or be able to walk properly. Those warnings proved to be unfounded.
"She's come a long, long way," her father said.
He credits a lot of his daughter's recent growth to the adaptive sports program. Her involvement with the teams has helped her develop socially and physically, he said.
"And maybe dang near the top of the list is self-confidence," he said.
"Shawna has blossomed beyond some of our early expectations. It's just helped so much to round her out as a complete individual."
The volleyball team meets on Thursdays for about two hours at the New Haven Elementary School gym. The team begins practice with a warmup, led by one of the athletes. Then the players run drills and relay races with volunteers.
The athletes can be heard encouraging each other between laughs and above the squeaking of sneakers on the gym floor.
Shawna Fitzpatrick knows some of her teammates from school but enjoys getting to know the new people who join the teams. And she really likes the tournaments.
"There are different teams, and some are hard, some are easy," she said of the competition. "It depends on their skill level."
"Everything that is good about sports for any kid or young people or even adults is good for these kids," said Allan Moore, head volleyball coach for three years. "They're just as competitive as anyone."
Moore says the athletes have fun, work hard and do what they're asked to do with no complaints.
"They're more appreciative of somebody being out there with them and spending time with them than anybody that I've ever been involved with at any level," he said.
Nicole LaHolt is the assistant coach for the volleyball team. She helps keep order during practice and directs the exercises.
"It gives me joy to help them learn and help them grow," she said. "I treat them like my friends — like people who like to have fun."
The goal is to teach the athletes to work as a team and to help them build self-confidence, and to get them more involved with the community, LaHolt said.
Most of the athletes live in group homes, but Shawna Fitzpatrick lives with her parents and gets around on her own. She uses a taxi, arranged through Boone County Family Resources, as her main mode of transportation.
When asked if she's pretty independent, she nodded.
"Yeah," she said with a wide grin. "It makes me feel like an adult."
When she isn't busy on the volleyball court, she often goes to MU volleyball games.
Off the court, she volunteers at the Central Missouri Food Bank, something she began while attending Rock Bridge High School. After graduating, she started volunteering there full time.
"It helps the community and helps families who don't have food get the food they need," she said.
At the moment, she is looking for her first paying job.
"She wants that sense of purpose just like anyone else," her father said. "She is developing a life of her own."