Basketball, swimming, golf, or bowling. Whether it’s in school or in the community, athletic opportunities abound for Waconia area residents, including Special Olympic athletes.
The Wild West team, as it has come to be known, is a community-based group of 52 Special Olympic athletes from Waconia, Watertown, Mayer, Victoria, New Germany, St. Boni, and other communities.
The group began as the Watertown Team in 2005 and Waconia resident Ute Palm took over as leader in 2007. Palm’s daughter, Sabine, had been one of the original four athletes in 2005, and when Palm took over, it was a whole new experience. She said she simply learned along the way, but couldn’t be happier to help to team.
“I’m just a parent of a special needs young lady,” Palm said. “It was so much fun, and so neat to see your child compete and succeed, which you wouldn’t be able to with the regular sports.”
Soon after taking charge, Palm changed the Watertown Team’s name to the Wild West, to encompass all of the represented communities.
“Let’s reflect something not so much the locale, but our team,” she said. “And we’ve grown ever since.”
The Wild West team offers five different sports: swimming and basketball in the wintertime, track and field in the spring, golf in the summer, and bowling in the fall.
The team also offers Unified teams, where Special Olympic athletes are paired with partners to compete in golf, basketball, and other activities.
Athletes can move between area teams, as different teams offer different sports. The Wild West’s swimming program draws some, while some regular Wild West members head to other teams for gymnastics, floor hockey, or softball.
Most athletes find out about the team through word of mouth, friends, and the schools.
“When you have a disability, it’s a small community and you know a lot of people,” Palm said. “Our athletes have friends.”
Wild West athletes range in age from 10-57 and are separated into divisions by skill and ability level, rather than age.
What makes Special Olympics different from other teams and organizations is the camaraderie that exists between athletes, teams, and spectators.
But don’t doubt that there isn’t a high level of competition.
“There’s a lot of competition going on, don’t get me wrong,” Palm said. “(We) put each athlete with other athletes with similar abilities.”
Palm said one of the most rewarding things is seeing participants blossom from shy personalities into competitive athletes. The goal is not necessarily to win, but simply to provide the opportunity for all athletes to participate and find success.
“Everyone has the chance to succeed and win, and often winning is not the most important thing,” Palm said. “It’s a good social interaction, they form friendships, and build community. It’s just fun and neat for the parents to see.”
For younger athletes and those who may not understand the team aspect, individual skill competitions are also available. The main purpose is to get athletes involved.
“There’s just this wide range of abilities and that’s just the cool thing with Special Olympics, it doesn’t matter where you’re at with your skills, you can participate and you can succeed,” Palm said.
The Wild West team competes in Area 11 during the regular seasons against other metro teams. At the end of the season, every team has the opportunity to compete at a state tournament. The next level is nationals, but that process is much more selective and only invited teams may compete. A handful of Wild West athletes have participated with other teams at the national level, and the Wild West’s Unified basketball team, which just started last year, is hoping to be invited in the future.
However, the state competition is more than just a gathering of athletes. Free medical services are offered, as well as a dinner and dance.
“It’s more than just sports, it’s really a social activity,” Palm said. “A lot of fun stuff to do.”
Special Olympics aims to make its programs free of charge for the participants, and none of the coaches or volunteers on teams are paid. The Wild West Team is supported by the Knights of Columbus, as well as local Polar Plunge teams.
“We try not to charge anything to our athletes,” but want to provide as many opportunities as possible, Palm said.
She doesn’t mind not getting paid, and said a very dedicated group of coaches and parents keep the team running.
“It’s like a part time job, I get paid by smiles and seeing the fun of it,” Palm said. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’m able to do Special Olympics.”
Beyond fitness, the Wild West team provides much of the same bonding experiences as any other athletic team.
“I think they very much enjoy the activity, they work very hard,” Palm said.
The benefits of Special Olympics are numerous: practicing hard, friendship, learning, leadership, playing as a team, and social interaction.
Beyond athletics, Special Olympics also offers a variety of different opportunities including leadership training and camps.
“There’s a lot of different opportunities for them there besides the sports,” Palm said.
But perhaps what truly makes Special Olympics “special” is the atmosphere that is created at an event. Regardless of team, age, skill, or any other factor that can divide people, Special Olympics events aim to bring people together.
Palm said Special Olympics events are like nothing a spectator has ever seen before. The spirit is simply infectious.
“When you go to a Special Olympics sports event, there’s just so many smiles, even if they lost,” she said. “When you watch it, you literally get goose bumps seeing the joy and the fun, and I always say ‘this is how sports should be for everyone,’ just the fun of being able to compete and being able to participate and everyone gets cheered whether it’s the last person coming in or the first one.”
Special Olympics characterizes itself as a “global movement of people creating a new world of inclusion and community, a world in which every single person is accepted and welcomed regardless of ability or disability. We are helping to make the world a better, healthier, and more joyful place – one athlete, one volunteer, one family meber at a time,” according to the Special Olympics Minnesota website.
Contact Melissa Marohl at [email protected]