Differences United: The Lake Orion Special Olympics Team
About the Project
In Lake Orion, the Special Olympics teams are part of a strong community that involves many sports and activities, volunteers, coaches, families, and a large number of participants. While this project focuses on the swim and basketball teams of the Lake Orion Special Olympics (LOSO), LOSO has 19 different sports and ongoing activities like proms and bingo nights throughout the year. The teams experience new friendships, strengthen their athleticism, and learn perseverance. This project shows how involved the community is with the LOSO and how the team members react in the trials of triumph and defeat. The team works past their individual differences to compete and interact as a cohesive team and that is what I aimed to portray in this project.
In many school systems, Lake Orion included, the special needs courses of study are different for each individual student. This means that the students are often learning on their own with a teacher or paraprofessional which is great for learning differences but not necessarily great for learning how to interact as a group.
At the beginning of the sports’ season, the practices heavily consist of team building exercises to get the team used to relying on each other and trusting passes—also team conduct, how to be a friend, how to accept a win, and how to accept a loss.
With a team, communication is key but, in the case of both the basketball and swim teams, some of the team members are nonverbal. The coaches have to create ways of communication through hand gestures and body movements to help the team succeed.
The basketball team must be able to communicate to efficiently pass and shoot. The swim team is a bit more individual than the basketball team, however, the team still holds a relay race at the end of the swim season which requires communication between the team.
Another way that the LOSO shows teamwork is by supporting one another. They can often be seen cheering on the rest of the team from the sidelines and boosting each other’s spirits.
The swim team celebrates a job well done with Coach Donna Squires after a swim practice.
“[My favorite part of LOSO is] having fun with my friends… I enjoy watching the games and cheering on my friends,” says swim and basketball team member, Kate Appledorn.
The Appledorn family is extremely involved in LOSO, Kate’s mother, Karen Appledorn runs the LOSO Facebook page and organizes events for the group. Kate has been a part of LOSO for 13 years and is 26 years old now. She says that the best thing about being on the teams is having different friends in every sport and having fun with them every time they meet.
One of the most important things that can be gained through working in a team is friendship. Giving the team members a common interest in these sports and allowing them to be around peers more gives them an easier outlet in which to make friends.
Before, during, and after the games, many hugs, fist bumps, and handshakes are exchanged between players. Communicating in this way to exchange energy allows friendships between verbal and nonverbal students.
There are two coaches for the swim team, David Whitaker and Donna Squires. Both coaches are employees of the Lake Orion School District, Whitaker is a physical education teacher at the high school and Squires is a swim instructor. A few members of the swim team are physically disabled so it is the duty of the coaches to find ways of exercising those athletes and getting them to join in with the other athletes. Many times, the swim team breaks into groups, with help of the volunteers, and the more physically able students practice swimming styles in the deep pool and the others stay in the shallow pool.
“Mr. Whittaker is phenomenal with the students, we are seeing a lot more structure from him than we have from any other coaches,” says Jaye Beste, grandmother of swimming athlete.
“The biggest challenge is keeping the kids busy in the water…but, the best part is seeing the pure joy of having real fun on the kids’ faces,” says coach Donna Squires.
The basketball team also has two coaches, Pete Shafer and Jim MacDonald. These men are challenged with the task of teaching basketball to both verbal and nonverbal athletes and also finding out each player’s strength and weakness on the court.
The Lake Orion School District goes by the team name of the Dragons. Dressed in green and white uniforms, the LOSO teams are exactly that, ferocious, fire-breathing dragons on the court and in the pool.
Once a year, there is a Special Olympics basketball game against one of the Lake Orion rivals, Oxford. This game always takes place during school time and the entire Lake Orion high school student body attends in their green and white outfits. This is the biggest event for the LOSO during the year.
The dragon mascot, the Lake Orion cheerleaders, students, and staff are all in attendance and participating—even some Oxford students and staff are bused in to attend the game and root for their school. This year, there was a DJ and for the half-time show the staff and students put on a show—the entire event really is community-driven.
For the Special Olympics, it is extremely important to get active because many students are sedentary during most of their days or they are physically disabled and unable to move as freely as others.
Basketball is generally more physically demanding than swim because it involves a lot of running and agility. Through basketball, the LOSO athletes learn and perfect their hand-eye coordination in order to pass, dribble, and shoot the ball. Working on speed and agility is also a main focus of the basketball team in order to get the students more in tune with their bodies.
Swimming is a sport that allows physically disabled athletes to participate; one athlete has been in a wheelchair most of her life, but with the help of a volunteer and the weightlessness of the water, she is able to move more freely. The swim team works on different styles of strokes in the deep pool and speed and aerobics in the shallow pool.
“Taking Jake to swim allows him to not just sit at home, he is being physical and learning how to follow and accept direction… I never knew if he would be physically able to participate but I am so thankful for this program,” says CJ Hamp, mother of an athlete that is visually impaired.
The LOSO team would not be possible without the constant support from the families of the participants. Karen Appledorn, a mother of an athlete, runs the Facebook group in which all of the athletes and families obtain their information about upcoming events and activities. She tries to make it to all of her daughter, Kate’s sporting events—Kate is the only LOSO athlete involved in every single available sport, and has been involved for 13 years.
Families are important to LOSO because that is where the majority of the fan support stems from. The athletes also obtain emotional support from their family’s attendance at the events. Presence of the families can be therapeutic in some situations for the athletes and some even have therapy dogs tag along.
Darcy is a shy athlete that participates in both basketball and swimming. He has been raised by his grandmother, Jaye Beste, for his whole life. Jaye Beste loves attending basketball and swim events and practices and seeing Darcy smile when he accomplishes something in the sport.
“Darcy is a big guy and swim and basketball help him get active…he slows himself down when he smiles but you can tell he is having a lot of fun,” says Jaye Beste.
Tyler Krueger participates in a few sports with LOSO including both swim and basketball. Tyler’s parents offer him support on the sidelines during events. Tyler is an athlete that works hard but always has a smile on his face. Tyler is always ready to give his family a big hug after his practices and events.
“My favorite part of coming to practices is seeing the [high school students] so involved, in my day, kids with special needs were hidden away. Seeing this sort of community is encouraging”, says Tyler’s dad, Buster Krueger.
Through sports, both verbal and nonverbal Special Olympics athletes are able to communicate in new ways: through body language and through movements. Sports also allows the athletes to add new sports and team associated terms to their vocabulary.
During games, LOSO basketball players are encouraged to interact with the fans in the stands. Doing this, increases confidence levels in the athletes and makes games even more fun for the athletes and the fans.
Swim is also a sport in which the athletes are being heavily socialized. By interacting with the other people at the practices and events, the athletes have more fun in the sport and participate more every day.
Every day at practices, athletes are being social with each other, their coaches, and their volunteers. Being constantly socialized is vital to the development of a person with special needs and that is part of what makes the Special Olympics so important.
For the LOSO swim team, volunteers are needed to help the coaches work between the separate pools and to help some of the high needs athletes. All of the volunteers for LOSO swim this year are past or present swimmers for the Lake Orion High School girl’s swim team.
During the swim season, student volunteers can be seen motivating the athletes, aiding in physical support, and acting as supplemental coaches. The girls often do the exercises with the athletes in order to further demonstrate what is happening. Usually, the volunteers rotate around and work with multiple players but the students who work with the high needs students, generally stay with them in order to increase comfort.
One challenge that comes with being a volunteer is that the athlete may not always let their boundaries known. “The last thing I want to do is push a kid too far from their comfort level, but I want to challenge them so they can grow as an athlete. Finding that balance can be difficult,” says volunteer, Meagan Wander.
Wander has been a volunteer for LOSO swim for three years and she finds it extremely rewarding. “After a swim practice, I can’t stop smiling. All of the kids and their families are so appreciative and you feel like you made a difference. Even the worst day can be made better by getting in the pool with the fantastic kids that we get to work with. Nobody can leave practice upset,” says Wander.
Every week, volunteer Nicole Horvath works with high needs athlete Jake Hamp. She sees improvements in him after every practice.
“Despite there being little improvements to his overall swimming ability, it was amazing to see the change of him initially not wanting to get kick, to using both his arms and legs swimming without my assistance,” Nicole says of Jake’s changes.
“The day I was able to get Jake to swim on his own, his mother walked along the pool and was almost in disbelief when I told her he was swimming on his own. It is something so simple and something that requires little of me, but makes the biggest difference in someone else’s life,” Nicole says, and that is why she loves working with the team every week.
Perseverance (NOW NOT A SECTION BUT BEHIND ATHLETICISM)
Despite his smaller stature, David Michaels is one of the fiercest, most fearless players on the court. He does not hesitate to block shots and passes and try to get the ball for himself.
Jake Hamp is an athlete that is visually impaired, but with the help of volunteer, Nicole Horvath, Jake swims alongside the rest of the team and competes in the races. He perseveres and swims strongly with the team.
“I like basketball but losing is not fun,” says LOSO athlete Corey Little.
Defeat is something that could easily sink the spirits of any athlete. With the help of strategic coaching styles, helpful volunteers, and close-by families, the effects of defeat for a Special Olympics athlete isn’t always too bad. It can be extremely hard when athletes have been working hard to accomplish something and see that not be accomplished. However, through exercises, the coaches work on teaching the students how to accept a loss and how to move forward and be a team player.
Tyler Krueger loves playing sharks and minnows—a game in which a few players are sharks and try to catch the other players that are the minnows in order to win the game. He loves playing it so much that he became upset when it was someone else’s turn to be a shark. With the help of a volunteer, he was able to calm down and realize he could happily play as a minnow.
“I don’t really care that [the other athletes] beat me, I’m happy I made it”, said athlete Kate Appledorn after a race in the pool.
At the end of the final basketball game of the season against their rivals, Oxford, the final buzzer went off and the team was ecstatic. Fists were raised in the air, faces were full of smiles, and hugs were passed around—what they had been waiting for and working towards was accomplished, they won the big game.
After working and practicing for weeks to months, the joy of triumph is clear on the faces of the athletes. Winning a meet or a game solidifies their hard work and makes them feel good. Once the athletes feel good, they are more likely to work hard again to feel good again, and that is why it is so important. Even in a defeat, it is important for the players to feel as though their hard work is validated with positive encouragement.
“What’s your favorite part about basketball?”
“Winning,” says athlete Corey Little.
At the end of the swim season, the athletes all participated in races requiring different strokes and relay races. After that was over, each team member was individually recognized as the important aspect of the team that they were.
Lake Orion is the city in which I grew up and went to high school; I can remember going to the basketball games for the Special Olympics every year of high school. Lake Orion has always been extremely supportive of the special needs community and I wanted to be able to capture that support and also all of the hard work that goes into the practices and the games. My little sister, Kaylee, has always been in the special needs programs for school and when she got older she joined the Poly-Hockey team and the Soccer team with the Special Olympics. Going to her games and seeing her shine during the practices and other events made me realize just how special this program really is. I am an advocate for funding special needs programs in schools and extra-curricular events. I love being able to see these kids shine and form friendships through sports and activities and I hoped to capture that in my photos.