The 2022 Special Olympics USA games is currently going on in Orlando, Florida. At the USA games there is a wide variety of different sporting events the athletes of all physical and mental abilities are participating in. Some of these events are powerlifting, soccer, flag football, basketball, cheerleading, and many more. The USA games allows individuals with disabilities to compete and excel at the highest level, without any risk of being stigmatized and looked down upon by individuals in society. The games were truly a remarkable experience for me to witness this year, and will be something that I look forward to in the future. What many individuals don’t know about Special Olympics is that they are more than just structured sporting events for individuals with disabilities. In addition to this, there are also unified sports, where individuals with and without disabilities play together to level the playing field, and promote overall inclusion in sport. This is incredibly meaningful to watch as just another barrier between individuals with special needs and “typical” society is broken. In addition to inclusive sports, special olympics also focus’ on keeping the athletes healthy outside of sport as well. They have made an entire section of the company related to health promotion, and the offering of free health screenings and resources to the athletes. This is incredibly important for the athletes, because many of them do not get access to proper healthcare, let alone take advantage of the healthcare they might have. Because of this, many state and national events host “healthy athletes” areas where numerous disciplines of health are available to help screen and educate the athletes. The disciplines for healthy athletes are :
- Opening Eyes (vision/eye health)
- Healthy Hearing (audiology)
- Special Smiles (dentistry)
- Health Promotion (prevention and nutrition)
- Strong Minds (emotional health)
- FUNfitness (physical therapy)
- Fit Feet (podiatry)
All of these are incredibly important individually for the athletes health, but together make a complete athlete. In the recent 2022 USA Games, I flew down to Orlando to help as a health promotion volunteer, and FUNfitness volunteer. The two volunteering experiences I had were wonderful, and just another step in helping the world become a more inclusive and healthier place for individuals with special needs.
Being a Health Educator at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games
As mentioned, my two experiences working at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games involved working in the physical therapy screening area, and the health promotion area. My first day had me interacting with athletes of all abilities and running a balance screening with them. I had the athletes practicing single leg balance, staggered stance balance, and even a quickness drill. These were all done to assess their risk of falling, which can be incredibly detrimental to some individuals that have osteoporosis and other musculoskeletal issues. I was extremely impressed with many of the athletes… especially the ones who could stand on one foot without opening their eyes. Overall, the athletes did great, and gave me plenty of stories of how they triumphed in their sports for the week, or suffered a tough loss. Although many of the athletes did well during the test, there were also many that struggled. These screenings are a great early intervention tool to hopefully help the athletes identify points of concerns in their health. Other areas that were screened in the physical therapy area were flexibility, strength, and stamina. At the end, the athletes were analyzed on how they did in their respective screenings, and given exercises to help with their weakness’.
On the second day, I helped volunteer in the health promotion area. This area is one that I have had previous experience working at the Special Olympics Iowa summer games. The health promotion area has a few different screenings, including a bone mineral density test, blood pressure test, and a height and weight reading. The bone mineral density test is done to show if athletes are at risk for osteoporosis, while the blood pressure and height and weight are done to show risk of developing chronic diseases. I specifically was put at a health education table, which had a large amount of food laid out on a table. I then had athletes pick their favorite foods, talk about the nutrients that they had or lacked, and gave alternatives to what they could consume. Overall this gave a great discussion into what kind of environments the athletes are working with at home. The tough thing about many of the athletes lives, is that they are usually living with Staff, and other roommates who might not eat the best or know how to even eat healthy. It is great that the athletes at the Games get the education, but if their roommates are not part of special olympics, then they are somewhat setup for failure. In the end, I was able to meet many other athletes of all abilities and help nudge their health decisions in the right direction.
If you are a health and fitness professional, of any capacity, I highly recommend for you to volunteer with your local or even national special olympics events. The events are a wonderful way for you to practice some of your practical skills, while being surrounded by a loving population who always brings smiles to everyone’s faces. The experience for myself is always eye opening to see just how many athletes need to be educated on proper health and wellness aspects. One of the interesting things I noticed about the games this year was the food accessible for athletes. For meals, they had Jersey Mike’s subs catered in for the athletes. In addition to this, people were given a large bag of chips, and cookies. Although there was plenty of bottled water accessible, many of the other drinks were high in calories and sugar. I thought that it was not particularly the best message to be sending out on eating and fueling properly for competition and life when there wasn’t even a piece of fruit offered at each meal. Nonetheless, this was a small thing that I noticed. Overall, it didn’t take away from the exciting glamour of the entire event, and bringing together of individuals both with and without disabilities. I look forward to the next event!
For more on special olympics, and what they do, click here.
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