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Borderlands: Special Olympics Shine In El Paso 15 (1997)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Special Olympics Shine In El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.

By Oscar Acevedo and Elizabeth Elizondo

Years ago children and adults with mental and physical disabilities often were ridiculed and rejected by society and even hidden in attics and basements. Worst of all, it was assumed that these children could not learn. They therefore remained uneducated, undeveloped.

In 1968, an event in Chicago grew into an organization known as the "Special Olympics," dedicated to forever changing these assumptions. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy, along with the Chicago Park District, organized the first international track and field event for the mentally retarded in honor of her older sister Rosemary.

Special Olympics provides young people opportunities for sports training and competition and serves to educate the greater public about the participants' potential as human  beings. This organization is the only other association authorized to use the name "Olympics." The Special Olympics program in El Paso and across the world has helped people look at the disabled differently.

""Image caption: Ysleta High School Winter 1996 Special Olympics power lifting athletes.  From left, Coach David Lucero, Omar Chavez, Fernie Lopez, Danny Salido and Danny Pacheco.  Kneeling are Braulia Sierra and Rosalva Armada. Photo by Oscar Acevedo

The Texas Special Olympics organization is divided into North, South, East and West Areas. El Paso is part of Area 19 North, which serves El Paso and Hudspeth counties, as well as the towns of Alpine, Presidio, Marfa and Van Horn. The El Paso Special Olympics hold spring and winter games each year, and each year the events have become even better known throughout the region as sponsorship grows. 

The Winter Games filled the facilities at Fort Bliss with over 200 athletes and their coaches, families and other supporters on November 1-2.  Athletes from Midland/Odessa competed with El Paso area athletes in powerlifting, softball and bowling. The Texas Winter Games were held in San Antonio November 15.

Spring Special Olympics opened April 12 with swimming and golf competitions, with equestrian events held on April 16 and gymnastics on April 17. Opening ceremonies were held on April 18 with basketball and track and field events including motor activities for wheelchair participants beginning on April 19. More than 900 area athletes competed in this year's spring Olympics. 

El Paso Special Olympians have the opportunity to participate in 23 sporting events, quite a difference from the 1978 Games when only track and field events were offered by the local chapter. 

Funding for these competitions is provided through personal donations and local businesses. Dairy Farmers of West Texas and New Mexico were the exclusive title sponsor of the Winter Games and minor sponsor for the Spring Games, contributing both money and products to the El Paso Special Olympics. Other 1996-97 sponsors included Big 8 Food Stores, Kalil Bottling/RC Cola, KTSM Channel 9 TV and Radio, Paragon Cable and Levi Strauss. 

Each year, the El Paso area also has a booth at the Amigo Airsho, and other events are held throughout the year to raise funds. Cash and in-kind donations from businesses in Texas have given the El Paso Special Olympics program a solid operating base through all their years of success. 

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El Paso athletes may compete in Special Olympics by being referred by their school, institution, or vocational school, or by signing up at the main office located at 2625 Gold St. Ralph Rodriguez, local Director for Special Olympics, has worked with the organization for 18 years. "We focus on abilities, not disabilities," he says. 

To illustrate this philosophy, all athletes who start a Special Olympics competitive event receive recognition for their efforts in the form of a place award. First-place winners receive a gold Special Olympic medal; second-place winners receive a silver medal; third-place receive a bronze medal. Athletes who place in fourth through eighth places receive ribbons with place numbers on them. An athlete who is disqualified or does not finish a competition is given a participation ribbon. Everyone walks away with a ribbon or medal of some kind. 

El Pasoan Sandra Amaya, sister of Saul Amaya, an athlete on the 1997 basketball Special Olympics team, says about her brother: "Saul is thrilled about being on the basketball team. In fact, he does his chores with more enthusiasm now. Saul feels like he is doing something that feels like a normal kid." The basketball team gives the athletes a chance to work and play together, depending on themselves as well as others.

" "Javier Elizondo, also a member of the basketball team for Burges High School, is excited about getting his family's full attention, Every Thursday night when the basketball games are played, he screams as he runs out onto the basketball "Tonight I will play like Michael Jordan for you all."

In Texas, Special Olympics began in 1969, when volunteers from Baylor University and the Waco community, various spectators and 350 mentally retarded athletes gathered at Paul Tyson Stadium. That first year the participants came from only private institutions, but in the second year, students from San Antonio and Waco Independent School Districts became involved. Each year the event grew, and in 1996, over 22,000 athletes competed year-round in 17 different sports. The organized international program consists of athletic training and competition at local, national, and international levels for children and adults with mental retardation and physical problems.  Rodriguez says that participants must be at least eight years old or older and have an intelligence quotient score below 80 to compete, but children between the ages of six and seven are eligible for training. 

The organization's Sports Information Guide explains that event divisions are based on age, gender and ability level to give athletes an equal chance to win. Special Olympics programs believe that through sports training and competition, people with mental retardation benefit physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. Families are strengthened and the community is united in understanding people who are different than they are. 

Image caption: Javier Elizondo won a gold medal for 1st place in the 50 meter run during the 1992 Spring Olympics. Photo by Elizabeth Elizondo

Rodriguez says that athletes train intensely for eight weeks before each sports competition, and volunteer coaches are responsible for training. Athletes who participate in the games have the opportunity to improve physical fitness and level of performance by mastering skills and enhancing abilities. Athletes participate in many different sports and learn how to play the sport and be active members of a team. Participants also encounter new experiences such as wearing a team uniform, traveling to new places for events and, most important of all, meeting new friends and teammates. 

Athletes improve self-esteem and self-confidence through the positive sports experiences and peer recognition for their accomplishments. Rodriguez says that Special Olympics help to better the transition into the community as a participating adult, and the experience helps vocational training with the development of motor skills, physical fitness and social skills that are needed for competitive employment. An organization slogan says, "When athletes practice and when they compete, the athletes of Texas Special Olympics are training for life."

Texas Special Olympics would not exist if it were not for the dedication and commitment of the thousands of volunteers throughout Texas. Volunteers work before, during, and after the, sporting events.

While the games are taking place, certain volunteers play an essential role in the events. They become "huggers" because they embrace the athletes at the finish or line at the track and field competitions. The most valuable reward a volunteer can receive is to see the expressions of the athletes at the end of each event.

The Special Olympics oath is "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." Special Olympics programs in El Paso motivate thousands of special people to participate, volunteer and encourage each other. This association is built on love and hope for changes in the way society views people with disabilities. 

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