Special Olympics meet is more than an athletic event

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Mon., Mar. 11, 2013
Ben Vertefeuille (left) and Jesse Halwitz attend the awards ceremony after the 50-yard backstroke race. Vertefeuille, who swims with the Windham Waves, took second place in the race.
Ben Vertefeuille (left) and Jesse Halwitz attend the awards ceremony after the 50-yard backstroke race. Vertefeuille, who swims with the Windham Waves, took second place in the race.

Step inside the athletics corridor of Windham High School during a Windham Special Olympics swim meet, and you quickly realize that it is much more than just a sporting event. The gymnasium is filled with music, laughter and dancing. In one corner, beach balls are batted over a volleyball net. In another, there is a relaxed game of basketball. There is a pirate mascot in the center of the room. And at the far end of the gym, in front of the D.J. table, the Windham Whippets mascot is madly dancing to “Gangnam Style.” One moment he’s on the floor, doing a canine version of “The Worm.” Then he’s up again, busting a frenetic move as other dancers, both athletes and volunteers, laugh and clap. The room is full of joy, which might explain why the event has become so popular with volunteers.

“Sometimes we have to turn them away,” said site coordinator Geri White. This year’s event drew more than 350 volunteers from all over Connecticut, with a large contingent coming from area schools and universities. A total of 180 athletes attended this year, representing 13 different teams from both Connecticut and Massachusetts. “It’s one of our bigger ones this year,” said White. “We actually have three new teams, from East Hartford, Groton and Quinebaug Valley.” The event is a qualifier for the state Special Olympics meet, to be held this year in New Haven in June.

“And we have all different ability levels,” said White. The Windham meet was one of the first to offer beginner-level races, according to White. There are walking races and races allowing flotation devices, as well as unified races including both developmentally disabled athletes and their non-disabled peers. For advanced athletes there is the 100-yard individual medley, featuring the back stroke, the butterfly, the freestyle and the breast stroke. “You have to be a pretty advanced swimmer to do that,” said White.

“The thing that makes our meet different is all the other activities we have going on,” said White. “It’s more than just an athletic event. It’s a happening.” In addition to dancing and games, there are crafts to keep athletes occupied between events. “It takes a lot to organize something like this,” said White.

This year, a March snowstorm brought more than a foot of snow to the area the day before the event. The Windham schools custodial staff cleared the snow to allow volunteers access for setup. “They made it possible,” said White. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

For athletes, the Windham meet is both an opportunity to compete and an opportunity to socialize. Windham resident Sam Snyder, who was competing in the event for the third time this year, said that it was all about the swimming for him. “I love the water,” said Snyder. Snyder said he practices every Tuesday night with the Windham Waves. “Got to get your body moving,” he said, mimicking a freestyle stroke with his arms.

Back in the gymnasium, Lyman Memorial High School students Aubrey Coutu and Michelle Valliere participated in “The Electric Slide” on the dance floor. The pair said they got involved through the National Honor Society and fellow Lyman student Emma Wentworth. “And my cousin has Down Syndrome,” said Coutu.

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