Bowling Enriches Lives of Special Athletes
Changing the lives of athletes with disabilities, the Oshkosh Special Olympics bowling team has proved itself at state as well as within the community. With a season stretching from late August to early December, this sport serves as a largely beneficial extracurricular source for athletes socially, athletically and emotionally. As the regional tournament passed on October 15, the athletes started preparing for state. However, this didn’t mean all work and no play. Special Olympics bowler and senior Erin Connors has enjoyed the bowling season with her team.By Jenna Kent
“We have a lot of memories like new friends, pizza parties, hanging out, and connecting groups [of kids] with disabilities,” she said.
Bringing together students with disabilities proves beneficial, as they are able to make new friends, and do things they may not be able to otherwise. Connors and the team also regularly praise their Special Olympics coaches, loving how much fun they have with the volunteers, as well as the new athletes they meet along the way.
“My favorite part [about Special Olympics bowling] is new friends and the coaches,” she said.
Along with having fun with her fellow bowlers, Connors also admires the different ways participating in the Special Olympics Bowling team has helped her feel more comfortable socially, as well as allowed her to learn new things about the sport.
“[The team helps me] feel more sure about myself, making a lot of new friends [and] understanding more about the sport,” she said. “With more friends, for kids like me, it’s made me a good person.”
With more than seven different regions participating in the state bowling tournament, there were many teams and events to observe. Another Special Olympics bowler from West, freshman Ryan Moon, definitely appreciated his team’s opponents.
“It’s good competition,” he said.
This competitive atmosphere, especially one at the state level, proves exciting and motivating for the students. Oshkosh’s Special Olympics bowling coach and West special education teacher Mary Beth Connors also sees the benefits her bowlers can gain from the sport, as well as the vast inclusivity of the sport.
“Bowling is just one of those kinds of sports that even students with more significant disabilities can participate,” she said. “We have ramp bowlers for our kids that are more physically involved and might be wheelchair bound so they can ramp bowl.”
Explaining how she sees her students develop through bowling, Coach Connors commends the sport and how it allows its participants to socialize without too much competitive pressure, as students can grow stronger athletically and socially.
“It’s a great social time. I think the other thing is bowling doesn’t bring out that horrible competitive edge, because you’re really playing against yourself,” she said. “When you’re swimming or playing basketball you know... you can’t be talking.”
Along with the many physical opportunities that come with the Special Olympics program, the students are seen greatly benefiting from its mental benefits as well. With positive aspects such as the new friends they have the ability to make, the Special Olympics program brings a welcoming atmosphere to its athletes. Coach Connors sees these benefits in her athletes both in daily life at school, and during their competitions.
“I think it’s more of a positive atmosphere because a lot of times individuals with disabilities don’t get as much of those social opportunities as those without disabilities,” Coach Connors said.
Coach Connors sees how much the sport has impacted not only her athletes’ lives, but her own as well. As a coach, she gets to be personally involved with the athletes and they seem to change her life as much as she changes theirs.
“[The athletes] are so endearing, it’s really fun to be around. When you’re around them, you know, they’re very forgiving,” she said. “You just can’t not smile. They genuinely share their excitement and their happiness and it’s just an inspiring atmosphere. It’s a lot of fun.”
Offering opportunities that students would not normally face, Coach Connors emphasizes the importance of the pride her athletes and students take in their Special Olympics sports, as well as the physical aspects bowling provides.
“[Participating in Special Olympics] helps them gain self-esteem. It helps them increase their social opportunities and it increases physical stamina,” she said. “I think they’re extremely proud when they can go to tournaments and if they qualify for state. It’s a way they can excel where their families can come and be proud of their accomplishments as much as a neurotypical sibling or peer.”
Coach Connors isn’t the only one who sees the excelling benefits in participating in the Special Olympics team. Working with the Wildcats on the bowling team daily, special education teacher Stephanie Polak encourages her students to embrace the program by spreading the word.
“I like my students to get involved with Special Olympics,” she said. “I would like to see more athletes trying out for Special Olympics in Oshkosh. I think once families become involved, they see a way for [the athletes] to remain healthy.”
Polak stands strong in her faith in Special Olympics bowling, especially because she sees firsthand how the students and their families reap the benefits of the organization.
“I think it benefits the athletes tremendously, it promotes their team building skills, brings in a social piece, a confidence piece,” she said. “I see that pride when they bring their ribbons to school.”
The bond the coaches and volunteers have with the athletes deepens and improves the lives of all involved, bringing them happiness and a sense of interconnection.
“I think it’s a win-win for everyone [the volunteers and students] to see the joy and pride,” Polak said of the sport’s student involvement. “It is great for them to achieve success and recognition.”