Ed. Note: These interviews, with the exception of Dr. Phil Cook, were done during the 2015 State Indoor Games at Fort Leonard Wood in March.
It’s no surprise that a sizable portion of Special Olympics Missouri coaches are also teachers at schools around the state. They already have the experience of breaking down complex ideas into teachable lessons and some even have the training of working with people with intellectual disabilities.
Those skills of understanding, communication and relatability are incredibly important for Special Olympics coaches to have.
One example of a teacher and SOMO coach who has these skills and has put them to work in her classroom and on the court is Kelly Blackford from Carl Junction High School in the Southwest Area.
In her seventh year of coaching SOMO — and her third with Carl Junction — Blackford, a special education teacher, said she appreciates being able to coach her own students.
“I teach life skills, adaptive skills and my athletes are also my students,” Blackford said. “I like having that outside-school environment where I get to mingle with them and do more social activities on a fun level than just being the teacher in the classroom.”
Blackford coaches bowling, basketball and track and field at Carl Junction H.S. with about 15 athletes doing all three sports. Not surprisingly, she said her favorite part about coaching isn’t about winning or losing, but watching them “just have a good time.”
“That spirit, that sportsmanship – that’s what we want to see – that’s what I want from my athletes,” she said. “I’m not worried about what color medal is around their neck as long as they’re being the best athlete that they can and as long as their sportsmanship to all the other athletes no matter whether they’re from our school district or other communities. That’s what I want to see and that’s what I love.
“That’s what brings me back every year.”
Blackford consistently has been a coach and teacher who goes above and beyond for her students and athletes, which has definitely been noticed by others as well.
“Kelly is an enthusiastic coach,” said SOMO’s Southwest Area Program Manager Stevie Lain. “She’s also a huge role model for a lot of our other area coaches.”
Blackford’s boss, Dr. Phil Cook, superintendent of Carl Junction School District, said he’s always been proud of its Special Olympics program, but it really went to “new heights” when Blackford took over.
“When Kelly arrived a few years ago she … expanded opportunities for our students and SOMO athletes,” Dr. Cook said. “Our athletes are competing in more sports than ever before and she has developed a Unified program that allows all students to compete alongside our Special Olympics athletes.”
The Unified Sports program isn’t just something new to Carl Junction schools, but to Special Olympics programs around the world.
Unified Sports (www.SOMO.org/UnifiedSports) is an inclusive program that allows athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete alongside and against athletes without intellectual disabilities. Athletes and Unified Partners compete alongside one another, each in a meaningful and integral role on the Unified Sports team.
SOMO offers 21 Olympic-type sports divisioned by age and ability for its athletes and each and every sport has the capability of being structured for Unified Sports. Sports bring people together and nowhere else is that more evident than in Unified Sports.
Blackford said she has an eighth-grade daughter who participates in their Unified Sports program and she plans on doing it all through high school.
“I like seeing that growth, but it also takes away that stigma,” she said. “Kids sometimes don’t want to participate (in Special Olympics sports) because they don’t want to be identified (as someone with an intellectual disability), but that Unified aspect takes that away.
“I’ve had some great seniors who have gotten involved and are very supportive and are just athletes with the rest of my (Special Olympics) players.”
One specific instance that shows just how much the school and the student body have bought into Special Olympics and its growing Unified Sports program is one of her athletes serves as the manager for the high school’s basketball team.
“He’s been allowed to practice with them, which is only going to improve his skill level and self-confidence,” Blackford said.
The high school team has even made it a point to attend some of the Special Olympics tournaments and cheer on their classmates.
The superintendent, coaches and students have all bought in.
“We have a new head boys’ basketball coach and he actually came to my practice and assisted ME… which was intimidating and incredible at the same time,” Blackford said.
Cook said, “Kelly has a real passion for Special Olympics and a true love for our athletes. I’m so glad Kelly is a bulldog.”
For those interested in becoming a Special Olympics coach, Blackford said it’s more competitive than people think and she loves that.
“Our athletes have a passion for their sport, just like ‘full-time sports’ at the high school level,” she said. “That passion is there. That drive to want to be a better athlete (is there). You just need to come out and volunteer and see for yourself … that it’s a legit sport. People have a misconception about Special Olympics sports, but it’s legit.”
Special Olympics is so much more than just sports for the athletes who compete, it’s about instilling a sense of pride, confidence and self-worth. Blackford said this is another reason she loves coaching her own students in SOMO sports is because it brings to light a different side of them.
“I have one athlete who is very timid (and only competes on the local level), who is a huge Hunger Games fan, so when she runs across the finish line now she yells, ‘I AM KATNISS!’ (after the main character in that book/film series),” Blackford said.
For any teacher, seeing their students learn and advance is the ultimate goal, but for Blackford, she’s able to take that to another level by coaching in Special Olympics.
“I absolutely love that about her,” Blackford said. “She’s just such a joy to watch and in the classroom she doesn’t exude that kind of confidence.”
Full disclosure: Dr. Phil Cook is also the current chairman of the Special Olympics Missouri board of directors.