In today’s sports world, fan appreciation is not exactly a top priority for professional athletes receiving multi-million dollar salaries.
But, on Saturday at Hickman High School, a group of athletes who never forget about their fans will be appearing. Athletes from 16 central Missouri counties will be competing in the Special Olympics Central Area Spring Games. For some Special Olympic athletes, acknowledging the fans takes priority over finishing the race. David Hood recalls his son Matt’s first track and field race.
“We got him lined up and set up for the race,” Hood said. “I went over and sat with my wife in the bleachers and I said, ‘OK, I’ve got him going and this is going to be great.’ They start the race and here he comes down racing and everything and he stops and waves to the stands. ‘Hi Mom, hi Dad.’ And that’s as far as the race went for him. He was just waving at everybody.”
Jeanie Byland, familiar with this situation, devised a strategy to cheer on her daughter, Sarah.
“When she was very young, we had to stand at the finish line and cheer, otherwise she’d stop and wave,” she said. Now a seasoned runner, Sarah Byland finishes all her races and keeps her collection of medals in her room next to her window.
Individuals and teams will compete in track and field events, and boccie — Italian lawn bowling.
For Matt Hood, the long jump has proved to be a calling.
“He was very good at jumping,” his mother, Glenda Hood, said. “He was very hyperactive as a child and, can you imagine, we put him in jumping and he was earning medals for something he always got in trouble for.”
The Columbia Police Department is involved with Special Olympics year-round through its involvement with the Special Olympics Missouri Law Enforcement Torch Run, a project run by police agencies that raises funds for Special Olympics Missouri. Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm is the state coordinator this year.
During a fund-raiser called “Cops and Lobsters,” held Thursday at Red Lobster, local police officers asked for nations as they waited on tables. Sarah Byland greeted customers and officers as part of her duties as a Special Olympics Global Ambassador. “Have you seen McGruff lately?” she asked one officer.
Local businesses and the MU Greek community will provide volunteers for Saturday’s tournament. Employees at Shelter Insurance Co. will be venue coordinators and MU Greek students will act as “buddies” for the athletes, as well as run “Olympic Town” and the food service.
“My favorite part is the MU girls taking us around,” said Howard King, a Special Olympics athlete for six years.
Greg Corpier, a tournament coordinator, said the Columbia community has welcomed the organization with open arms.
“We chose Columbia as our tournament site each year because it is a fairly central location for our athletes and has great facilities,” Corpier said. “The Greek community makes the Special Olympics tournament the kick off for their Greek Week and have become so involved with it that they compete among themselves for the best event or activity held in Olympic Town.”
To Matt Hood’s mom, Glenda Hood, the Special Olympics is more than just a community event.
“It gives him self-esteem and tells him he can do something right,” she said. “All the way through school when you’re in special ed, you learn that nothing you do is right. In Special Olympics, it’s like ‘You can do it,’ so it’s something positive that we get to hear about our child, too.”
Elizabeth Carter, who competes in track events and the softball throw, has also gained confidence from the competition.
“At first, I thought, I can’t do this. I won’t win a gold medal,” Carter said. “But you’ve got to focus on something good. On my softball throw I can do a mean one — 34 ft. They told me ‘You could be in the major leagues.’”