For one week every summer, Sports Camp at Special Olympics Missouri gives more than 80 SOMO athletes a chance to practice their athletic skills, try new sports and bond with fellow athletes, coaches and counselors. Sports Camp offers up to 10 sports over the course of the week, ranging from official Special Olympics sports such as flag football, soccer and volleyball, to other activities such as disc golf and cycling.
The cycling classes were featured every day of camp and, with the help of the PedNet Coalition (www.PedNet.org), provided athletes of all ability levels a chance to practice their biking skills. Beginners could start on Strider bikes (www.StriderBikes.com), which do not have any pedals and allowed riders to get their balance before moving up to larger bicycles, while more advanced riders could try to tackle different obstacle courses that were set up each day.
The highlight for many athletes, coaches and camp staff members was seeing athletes move from pushing themselves along on a Strider bike on Monday and graduate to riding a full-sized bicycle by Thursday. Sometimes athletes who had ridden before just needed a week at Sports Camp to rekindle their enjoying riding a bike or brush up on their skills.
Don Richter, the oldest athlete at Sports Camp at age 69, was able to ride by himself for the first time since having two hip replacements in 2014 and 2015. He said that, even though he had ridden before, the fact that he was able to get back onto the bike for that first time gave him the most excitement from the activity.
Another athlete, Logan Gardner, became so inspired by the help he had over the course of the week to ride a bike by himself, that once he figured it out he circled the facility yelling, “I can ride a bike!” in excitement and would hardly stop for anyone. In an interview alongside his father, Tim, Logan Gardner said that he used memory of when he first learned how to ride at a younger age to help others through their own learning process at Sports Camp.
“He loves riding and once he figured it out at camp, he wanted to encourage the other athletes,” Tim Gardner said. “He wanted to show them that if he could ride, they can too and nothing was stopping them.”
PedNet’s Assistant Director Lawrence Simonson has led the cycling session at Sports Camp for two years and saw first-hand how much the athletes loved hopping on a bike, sometimes for the first time.
“In our culture there are certain milestones in people’s lives and that ‘learn-to-ride’ story is certainly one of them,” Simonson said. “That’s a massive milestone and some people in your program may have never had that opportunity. If we can come in and give them that life milestone, it’s a wonderful thing. Everyone should have that. We’re excited to help give them that.”
One such example of this is of an athlete who came to Sports Camp who tried to ride a bike when he was younger, but never really got the hang of it.
“Getting to speak to his dad, he thought it was just another one of those life milestones he’d never get and here he is as an adult finally getting that chance to ride a bike,” Simonson said. “He had that determination to never give up.”
That leads to one of the things that has surprised Simonson about working with Special Olympics Missouri athletes: positivity.
“One of the things that surprised me the most — and it’s a credit to staff and volunteers — is the positive attitude of the athletes,” he said. “I’ve never worked with another group of individuals who can take failure and take them as learning experiences rather than something they just can’t do.
“They understand they will fall from time to time, but they get back on and keep trying.”
Another important benefit of cycling that Simonson and PedNet are excited to share with the athletes is how riding a bike can be a great mode of transportation for them.
“A lot of times, your athletes may never get a license and struggle with transportation issues,” Simonson said. “Using a bike is an efficient, healthy and affordable option for them to get to their job or see family and friends. That’s just one more wonderful benefit to this program.”
These are just a few examples of the many successful stories that came from the just the cycling activity that week. Seeing the excitement on the athletes’ faces when they realized what they had accomplished in just four short days was the payoff that made cycling an important and joyful part of Sports Camp. Thanks to the strong relationship with PedNet, Special Olympics Missouri program staff hopes to continue to offer cycling at Sports Camp and at future events throughout the rest of the year around the state.
“I really do think this would be a wonderful sport for SOMO to have,” Simonson said. “I always say that if you give me a problem, I can solve it with a bike.
“I’m happy to at least be stoking that fire at least a little bit.”
-Harrison McLean, Brandon Schatsiek