ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a bright Saturday morning in July, claps and cheers of “Come on, Johnny!” and “Good job!” ring out in the soccer complex at the University of New Mexico.
Seventy-four Special Olympics athletes, who have a range of disabilities, and 23 coaches run around cones and jump in and out of hoops during a Soccer Skills Academy led by UNM soccer players.
If athletes need help, Molly Sorce, a Special Olympics coach for 32 years, runs along with them to show the ropes.
For Sorce and the more than 1,200 Special Olympics coaches in New Mexico, this is a normal Saturday. Coaches spend several hours a week preparing 2,600 athletes for 13 sports. Many coaches work with multiple sports. Along the way, they learn the rules themselves.
“You can’t teach if you don’t know how to do it yourself,” says Theresa Priest, program coordinator and coach for the Sandia Prep team, so named because the athletes practice at the private school.
For Sorce, a typical summer weekend begins with softball on Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and bowling from 2-4 p.m. On Sunday, she coaches swimming from 10 a.m.-noon and soccer from 1:30-3:30 p.m.
While sports change depending on the season, her schedule remains just as packed all year. Even in winter, Sorce still coaches bowling, gymnastics and poly hockey (an adapted form of ice hockey not played on ice).
Sorce, a 63-year-old medical technologist, is also a cyclist and swimmer who began competing in triathlons at age 50. She spends so much time with Special Olympics that she doesn’t have time for much else, like vacations, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “I get a lot out of it,” she says. “I love watching the athletes – and I do the lower-end athletes – I love that they can connect with something, that they can learn to play a game, have fun doing it and challenge themselves.”
Priest started coaching 30 years ago.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you have kids?’ My life is pretty much complete doing what I do with Special Olympics,” she says.
Coaches should expect to spend about four hours a week in practice, says Steve Harris, director of coaches education with Special Olympics New Mexico. They do not need to be athletes but do need to be interested in passing skills on to athletes.
Athletes are there to learn and compete to the best of their abilities, he says. They need to learn drills and to be corrected to improve.
“Our athletes don’t want pity,” he says. “We’re a sports organization. We can’t just say, ‘Let’s throw the ball out there.'”
With new coaches, Priest makes sure to explain that they are making a serious commitment. Athletes, who see coaches as role models, often get quite attached.
“You need to totally commit to these athletes,” Priest says. “It’s not a recreational organization where you just show up when you want to.”
As a coach, Priest has learned that she can’t simply tell athletes what to do from the sidelines. Instead, she is right next to them, showing them how to sink a basket or make a pass. She also attends every training she can to improve her skills.
With a range of abilities, athletes learn in different ways. Some cannot read or count; others have trouble hearing or understanding instructions, coaches say.
Watching athletes master skills is a thrill for coaches.
“If I see someone make a basket, it’s like, ‘She finally did it!’ ” Priest says.
Coaches need to interact with all kinds of athletes, many in their 30s and 40s.
“You need to respect these athletes,” Priest says. “They’re not kids.”
Support and confidence
In Special Olympics, coaches and athletes often make deep connections.
“You are one of their life supports,” Sorce says. “I’ve been told over and over, ‘You don’t know how much you mean.'”
Coaches watch athletes grow, says Sorce. Sports give them confidence and make them feel they can excel, sometimes for the first time.
Athlete Tim Marrow, 38, who works at Clark’s Pet Emporium, joined Special Olympics 15 years ago. He is a proud member of the Sandia Prep team, which he jokingly calls “prepilicious.”
Marrow competes in every sport except swimming, bowling and golf. Special Olympics keeps him busy and connected, says Marrow, who has no family here. He plans to compete ” ’til the day I die.”
“It keeps me in the community,” he says. “They became my family.”
His coaches work hard for the team – using their own money to buy uniforms and inviting him home for holidays – and he says he does what he can in return. He adds that he designed a shirt for the cycling team.
Coaches like Sorce and Priest don’t treat Special Olympics athletes differently.
“They know how to treat us,” he says. “They don’t baby us. They treat us like a regular person.”
Coaches cite many reasons for being involved with Special Olympics. Coach Nutan Patel says her son was one of the first 10 athletes to join the Rio Rancho Rockets 13 years ago. The team now has 120 athletes.
Patel thought of Special Olympics when she saw that her son, Shiv Patel, who was born with cerebral palsy, had trouble with school sports because of sensory integration problems. Patel thought a smaller group might work better for him.
“In Special Olympics, each athlete, no matter what their ability, they will participate and compete,” she says.
Shiv, 21, a student at Central New Mexico Community College who plans to transfer to UNM to study computer networking, excelled at several sports and is now an assistant coach for basketball and hockey.
“I’ve been an athlete for so long I just decided to go for it,” he says.
Special Olympics offers community and support for parents, as well as athletes, says Nutan Patel.
“We’re a close-knit group,” she says. “We kind of look out for each other.”
Fellow Rockets coach Brad Cutler says coaching is “the most fun thing I do.”
He first coached Special Olympics in 2005 after moving to Los Angeles. In 2007 he returned to Albuquerque, where he had lived during high school, and started coaching again two years ago. When soccer was added as a Special Olympics sport in New Mexico, he jumped at the chance to coach a sport he had played for years.
Special Olympics’ emphasis on competition and developing skills appeals to Cutler. Outside Special Olympics, he never liked how personal issues creep into sports.
Competition may be tough, but after closing ceremonies, everyone gathers for a dance. “From the first second I showed up I was accepted,” he says. “The minute I got back involved with Special Olympics, it was like, ‘Wow, I belong here.'”