Griswold skaters in training for Special Olympics regionals
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Tue., Feb. 12, 2013
Speed skating came easily to James Rivard. “I knew how to skate right away when I stepped on the ice,” he said. “I just did it myself.” Now in a practice heat at the Norwich Ice Rink, he led the pack, kicking up a mist of spray as he rounded the curve and slid over the finish line ahead of the other racers. A teammate was waiting in the box to give him a high five. "Way to go, James!” he said. “That was smooth.”
James was one of a group of special education students from Griswold High School and Norwich Free Academy at their weekly Monday morning practice session, preparing for the Special Olympics regional competition coming up Feb. 21 at the rink. The two schools train together, with help from teacher-coaches and volunteer partners who assist in coaching, timekeeping and cheering.
Griswold special education teacher Jerry Ross said that the Griswold squad consists of students from the middle school and high school, along with adults who have aged out of school but still skate with the team. “We all train together, which is nice. The kids know each other,” he said. “It’s all about a safe environment, interacting with peers and growing socially and physically.”
Some skaters need more physical assistance than others. Several PVC-pipe supports that resembled walkers were scattered on the ice, for use by students who need help with balance. Ross said sometimes he’ll skate backwards, face-to-face with an uncertain skater, until they’re comfortable on the ice. But during practice, every skater is greeted by cheers and encouragement as he or she crosses the finish line, no matter their placement or whether they skate alone or with help.
The high school special education students are paired with a volunteer partner from the GHS regular education program. These student volunteers get released time from school to attend practice with their paired athletes; sometimes they participate in relays as part of a unified team, said Ross. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity for both of them,” he said. “We’ve had volunteers who have decided to go into special education because of their participation in this program.” Members of Connecticut College’s girls’ hockey team also volunteer their time to help with practice, he said.
Some local athletes will also progress to the state Special Olympics in Simsbury, said Ross. A number of different factors play into whether an athlete can handle competition on that level, he said. For some, “the special needs are a little more than can be handled” in a field of hundreds of competitors.
James, a student at Griswold High School, has been skating for three or four years. He said his favorite aspect of skating is the speed, “when I go really fast.”
For Katie Ryley, though, the best part is the fun. “I really enjoy doing this,” said Katie, an adult member of the Griswold team. She said of the competitions, “I’ve got all my family who really cares about me – my parents and my friends. Everybody’s going to cheer me on.”
Katie’s father, Jim Ryley, praised the volunteers and the coaches for their work with the mentally- and physically-challenged youngsters. “The coaches do the biggest job. They put a lot of time into it,” he said.
Besides the physical and behavioral benefits, Special Olympics offers its participants a sense of belonging. “It’s so much about being able to be regular folks,” said program coordinator Cava Castagnaro. The program gives people with disabilities “the sense of being part of the community, able to go out and do things like anybody else would.” Athletes build friendships outside the classroom that continue through the year as they meet again to compete in different sports, she said.
“Just to see the smiles on their faces is the biggest thing,” said Jim Ryley. “They don’t care how fast they go. They’re happy.”