Missouri athletes and Special Olympians share smiles at basketball clinic

Saturday, October 29, 2011 | 7:45 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, November 1, 2011

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Eldon Special Olympics. The program is in Eldon, Mo.

COLUMBIA — It's hard to say who was smiling most at Mizzou Arena on Friday night.

It might have been the Missouri women's basketball team. It might have been the Special Olympians the team was volunteering with. Or maybe it was the Olympians' parents and the other volunteers on hand. 

Just about everyone in attendance had smiles on their faces at the basketball team's Special Olympics clinic. About 120 Special Olympians attended, said Susan Shaffer, who works for Missouri Special Olympics and organized the event. Missouri Special Olympics has a partnership with the Big 12.

Several Special Olympics programs came from across the state, some dressing in matching T-shirts for the event. *Columbia Parks and Recreation Special Olympics wore blue, the Unstoppable Dawgs from Mexico, Mo., wore gray, and Eldon Special Olympics from Eldon, Mo., wore gold. Two groups from the Kansas City area attended.

The groups include Olympians as young as 8 and as old as 75, Shaffer said. All of the Olympians have some sort of cognitive disability, and some have a physical disability as well.

"A lot of them don't have a lot of exercise besides this, so we try to keep them involved in a year-round program," Shaffer said. "They love coming to campus." 

As groups showed up for the event, they picked up basketballs and started shooting around. The women's basketball players, wearing their own sky blue volunteer T-shirts, immediately started getting involved. 

Freshman Kyley Simmons tried to steal the ball from an Olympian wearing a No. 24 Missouri jersey. A minute later, she was trying to dribble around another Olympian. 

Other players rebounded for the Olympians as they shot around before Shaffer called everyone to center court. Already, smiles were filling the arena.

After a brief introduction, the Olympians spent time at six stations that the basketball players set up. They stretched and ran agility drills such as jogging and jumping jacks. They practiced layups, shooting and dribbling.

In the practice gym, they practiced passing and defense.

As each group ran back to Norm Stewart Court from the practice gym, they passed under a big block of text that read: "Compete With Tiger Toughness."

Most of them probably didn't notice the sign, but they showed off that "Tiger toughness" while competing — and while cheering each other on — during short scrimmages.

"They love to play," Shaffer said. "They just have to work a little harder than the athletes do."

Shaffer and Robin Pingeton, Missouri women's basketball coach, also encouraged the Olympians to attend some of the basketball team's games this season. The Tigers play their first exhibition game on Tuesday against Truman State.

The event concluded as Pingeton handed out a Missouri basketball to an Olympian who was celebrating a birthday and then to several more Olympians who Shaffer selected. Players autographed the balls and handed out posters for all of the Olympians to take home.

Everybody went home smiling.

"It's a great reminder for all of us to embrace life and the journey that we're on," Pingeton said. "Seeing them in the moment is really special. They just love life."

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