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June 24, 2009 > UC Davis to Host Special Olympics June 26-28

UC Davis to Host Special Olympics June 26-28

By Gary van den Heuvel
Photos By Bill Mancebo

The biggest event on the calendar for Special Olympics Northern California will take place the weekend of June 26 through 28. The UC Davis campus will be the host of the 2009 Special Olympics Summer Games.

More than 700 Special Olympics athletes from Northern California will compete in aquatics, bocce, tennis and track and field events. The bocce competition will take place at the Martinez Waterfront Bocce Courts.

Special Olympics Northern California is a free year-round sports training and competition program for children and adults who have developmental disabilities. More than 13,000 athletes compete in 170 competitions throughout the region, in 15 sports. Over 12,000 volunteers give their time and support, as well as more than 4,600 volunteer coaches.

One of those coaches is Amy Lee, an attorney at law who coaches the Hurricanes, a Hayward-based team that has been in existence for over 25 years. Lee has coached the team since 2001.

For Amy Lee, community service is something she's been involved with since childhood and up through college. However, after going to work for the federal government in the Immigration Department, Lee was told she wasn't allowed to do any type of community service because of the possibility of coming into contact with people who had no legal status in the U.S., which would be a conflict of interest. Because of this rule, Lee was unable to do any type of community service while working for the government.

After leaving her position in 2000, Lee looked for organizations where she could be of help.

"I contacted a couple of organizations via email to ask about openings to act as a volunteer," she said. "The other organizations either failed to respond at all or responded by email to request a monetary donation. Special Olympics was the only group to enthusiastically jump on my offer of time."

The Hurricanes' team members range in age from 20 to 54; the minimum age for Special Olympians is 8 years old.

The youngest member of the team is 20-year-old Ramon Muniz. Muniz has cognitive difficulties and Lee describes him as "a great athlete." He currently attends Castro Valley Adult School through the Special Needs program. "He's a very fast runner, a strong jumper and pretty much unbeatable at shotput," says his coach.

23-year-old Jacob Kaufman is a strong all-around athlete who has some cognitive disabilities. He lives and works in a group home, and his strengths are the sprint, relay, jump and shotput.

Ricky Daniels, 24, has Down's Syndrome and also is good at shotput. His sister Kaissi, a graduate of Cal State East Bay, also coaches Special Olympians.

Elaine Lee, age 36, is a good runner and very strong so she excels at the shotput.

The oldest member of the team is Ramon Muniz's uncle, Jorge Rodriguez, at age 54. "Jorge is a joy to have around," says Coach Lee. "He does not speak any English; he also has cognitive issues. Always in a good mood and game to try anything, he's a good example of the spirit behind Special Olympics."

The Hurricanes, who are part of the Alameda County Contingent of the East Bay, organize frequent scrimmages against other local teams. "The kids really enjoy it," says Lee, "and it's a good gauge of what we still need to work on."

One of Coach Lee's favorite memories is of an event a couple of years ago where the Hurricanes sent a very strong relay team, who had won gold medals at the regional competition. Lee was concerned that the team, accustomed to winning, would be discouraged if they did not win or medal. Though they finished third, "they were just as happy and excited as if they'd won gold," she said. "There were no tantrums, they'd grown up. It was heartwarming."

The events begin at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 26, with the final leg of the Torch Run to the State Capitol Building for a press conference on the North Steps, continuing through West Sacramento and Woodlands to the torch's final destination at UC Davis's Aggie Stadium. The torch, which will have been carried and run through Northern California by more than 500 law enforcement personnel since June 18, will light the Flame of Hope, which will burn throughout the events. The Opening Ceremonies will start at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, June 26, with the athletes' parade at Aggie Stadium and the Ceremonies will include the torch lighting.

The Saturday and Sunday events begin early - 9 a.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. on Sunday. Both days will feature track and field, tennis, aquatics and bocce. The public is invited to participate in the Reach For The Gold 5K Walk/Run on Saturday at 9 a.m. The Walk will begin at the A Street Field, near Toomey Field, and will wind its way through downtown Davis, Central Park and the UC Davis Arboretum.

"Reach For The Gold" is the theme for the Summer Games as well as a community awareness and fundraising campaign for the Special Olympics. The Saturday events will go into the early evening and the Games will conclude on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Admission is free, and more information can be found at www.sonc.org., or www.reachforthegold.kintera.org.

The athletes aren't the only ones who benefit from the competitions - volunteers such as Amy Lee derive personal rewards from the Special Olympics as well.

"I have watched Autistic athletes who were withdrawn and non-communicative become interactive and independent, and seen the parents cry as they make each step," says Lee.

"Their social skills improve and it's just a high to see how happy the kids are each time they or their friends make a personal best," Lee continued. "What's even better is how they are so happy for one another whether they disqualify and only get a participation medal, or win a gold medal ... there are just so many good memories and every year there are more of them."

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