Special Olympics visits U for fifth year

by Tess Langfus

Bridgette Wang’s beaming smile told onlookers everything she could not clearly say as she stood on the awards podium Thursday with six other event athletes in the corner of Bierman Field.
Onlookers applauded and cheered as a Minnesota Vikings cheerleader slipped over Bridgette’s head the 5th place ribbon she won during the softball throw event. She held the light blue ribbon toward her family so they could take pictures and congratulate her.
The small, blonde 11 year old participated in the 27th annual Special Olympics Minnesota events along with more than 900 other participants. This is the first year Bridgette, who has Down syndrome, has participated in the events. Her parents, brother and personal care attendant stood behind the fence earlier and cheered Bridgette on during the softball throw.
“It really helps her self-esteem and she wants to play in the sports. She wants to compete and she competes a lot better with the kids here than she can … at school,” said Barb Wang, Bridgette’s mother. “I think it’s really great for her to know that other kids can do it and that she can do it too.”
In order to be eligible to participate in the Special Olympics, athletes must be mentally disabled or have a cognitive delay. Coaches and volunteers assisted athletes with other physical disabilities on the field as they pushed wheelchairs or guided blind participants around the track during the races.
Three members of the University Gophers football team — Ryan Roth, Derek Burns, Ben Hamilton — and an assistant coach, Jared M. Smith, were part of the nearly 2,000 volunteers. They signed autographs, posed for pictures and handed out ribbons Thursday during the award ceremonies.
Roth, Gophers’ offensive lineman, said just from the looks of the athletes and “how happy they are to see you sign their paper, right there you just know how worth while it is for you to spend your time and that you have the opportunity to just make them happy.”
Smith, having volunteered at the Special Olympics while he was in college five years ago, encouraged members of the football team to participate.
“It’s about these kids right here,” he said. “If everybody would get as much joy and look in their eye when they see you, when they see the players. There’s 80,000 people that we play in front of that aren’t even that happy after we win … That sparkle, that’s what it’s about.”
KARE-11’s Tim McNiff emceed Thursday evening at the opening ceremonies and announced the Minnesota teams as athlete representatives paraded through Bierman field. McNiff is also on the board of directors for Special Olympics Minnesota.
“I just love the interaction with the athletes and to see the kick they get out of the walk-through and raising [their banners] up. That’s real. It’s not something you’ve seen a hundred times before on the Wide World of Sports. This is a neat thing to me — to kind of recharge the batteries a little bit,” McNiff said.
The summer events held at Bierman field and in Roseville are only one of the eight state level competitions in Minnesota. More than 6,000 athletes participate in 20 other sporting events throughout the year. This is the fifth year the Special Olympics Minnesota held their summer competitions at the University.

Tess Langfus welcomes comments at [email protected].