Special Olympic athletes can’t wait to get back on the field

OKEECHOBEE — Special Olympics began as a summer day camp in the back yard of Sargent and Eunice Shriver. Eunice Shriver was a member of the Kennedy family, sister of John F. Kennedy, and her goal was to change the way people with mental disabilities were treated in the world. Now, Special Olympics is the largest program of its kind.

Normally, Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and competition to children and adults 8 years of age and older with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In Okeechobee, athletes compete in athletics, basketball, bowling, cheerleading, equestrian and swimming. There are currently 58 athletes and 14 volunteers who give their time to make Special Olympics possible in Okeechobee.

Unfortunately, with the onset of COVID-19, came the cancellation of all Special Olympic activities. Based on recommendations from the CDC all in-person activities were canceled from March through June and now because of the recent increase in cases reported in Florida, they have decided not to set a start date for in-person programming at this time.

Special Olympics is something many of the athletes look forward to all week. It is the time they get to see their friends. It is a time when they get to do something they enjoy, something they are good at, something they are proud of.

Omar Martinez and his grandfather Blas Aguilar Jr.

Many of them do not understand why they can’t see their friends. They do not comprehend what a virus is or germs or any of the things caregivers try to explain. They just know they are stuck in the house for months at a time, and they can’t go see their friends or do the things they always did. We will be showcasing some of their stories over the next few weeks.

Omar’s mom Lucy Aguilar is his biggest cheerleader, both on the field and off.

Omar Martinez is 24 years old. He has been participating in Special Olympics for several years now, according to his mom. His favorite sport is basketball, but he also enjoys bowling. When he has trouble getting the ball where it is supposed to go, he said he knows he has to “Stop! Look at the ball, and then let it go.” Omar has done track and field too. He likes to throw the ball, and thinks it is fun to see how far he can throw it. “I can throw it high!” he said. They had bike races on field day, but he said riding a bike is very hard, and he did not do that, but he did try. He believes in trying things even when they are hard.

When Omar isn’t playing sports, he enjoys playing with Hot Wheels cars and playing in his dad’s truck, but his very favorite thing is to play YouTube videos! Another favorite pastime is to watch for semi trucks as they go by his house. He enjoys trying to get them to honk their horns.

Although Omar misses his friends and Special Olympics, he is not too lonely during the shut down, because he has two dogs, and he loves to play with them. He got one of them as a graduation gift five years ago when he graduated from high school.

One of his favorite experiences in Special Olympics was riding on the bus during the Torch Run while all the officers ran in front of the bus. Then the sheriff made him a big barbecue lunch, he said. He can’t wait to do that again when they start Special Olympics up again.

Alexis Mundell (left) was talked into joining Special Olympics by her best friend Carol Marker (right.)

Alexis Mundell will be a senior when school starts this year and has been a Special Olympics athlete for one year. Her best friend Carol Marker talked her into joining. So far, she has done bowling and cheerleading, but cheerleading was interrupted by COVID-19, and the season ended early. Even though it was her first year participating in bowling, she won a gold medal in Area Games for bowling, said Bernard Marker, Special Olympics Director.

When the schools closed and everyone was told they should stay home, Alexis began spending a lot of time with her grandma. They go to the beach together. Alexis has one brother and one sister. She enjoys spending time with her friends, especially Carol, but she has not been able to see any of her friends much since the schools shut down.

Alexis (left) and Carol Marker (right) hold the banner at the Olympic Games in 2019.

She did have a drive-by birthday party for her 18th birthday though. Some of the people from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office surprised her with a drive-by birthday celebration with sirens and everything, and the Marker family dropped off a cake.

Some of Alexis’ favorite things to do are arts and crafts and photography. She also enjoys camping. Alexis is hoping school does start back up soon. Ms. Coopers is her teacher, and she really loves her.

If you have a family member who would be interested in joining Special Olympics, you can contact Bernard Marker, who is part of the Okeechobee Special Olympics management team, at 863-801-3393. You can also find information about the organization on their website at specialolympicsflorida.org/okeechobee.

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