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March 23, 2014

Athletes demonstrate spirit of Special Olympics Indiana

Families, friends, volunteers find cause to celebrate sports achievements

TERRE HAUTE — Twenty-year-old Jon-Treal Rushing of Grant County admitted that he’s sometimes not a people person, but he has found friends among teammates and coaches at Special Olympics Indiana.

In the spirit of sportsmanship, Rushing was among approximately 600 athletes — along with their coaches and families — who assembled in Terre Haute over the weekend for the Special Olympics Indiana Men’s State Basketball Tournament.

The championship games were on Sunday inside the Health and Human Services Building (also known as the Arena) at the campus of Indiana State University. It was also there that Rushing, who has a learning disability, spoke of his fondness for sports.

“I just like having fun and being around other people and meeting new friends,” Rushing said.

Affectionately known by his friends as “Pete,” Rushing joined Special Olympics Indiana about three years ago after a friend invited him to one of the events.

“I liked it ever since,” he said.

He particularly likes basketball, flag football, bowling and track and field. The sports have helped him improve physically, spiritually and emotionally every year, he said.

And this is obvious to Rachel Loft, who has coached him in bowling and track and field.

“He’s turning into a great leader for the team,” Loft said.

As a coach, Loft said she helps the athletes not only in the development of each individual players’ skills but also in the development of the overall person.

“I love watching them play,” especially the joy they get when receiving medals, Loft said.

She has been involved with Special Olympics Indiana since 1997 and has watched many athletes of varying backgrounds and ages — the youngest is 11, the oldest 70 — develop sportsmanship and leadership.

“They build friendships as well,” she said.

Special Olympics Indiana is a not-for-profit organization that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in more than 20 Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, according to a press release. It reaches more than 11,000 athletes across Indiana.

Overall, Indiana has more than 2,400 Special Olympics athletes participating in basketball, which is the third-most popular Special Olympics sport in the state, the release further stated.

The tournament at ISU began on Saturday and concluded on Sunday.

Michael Furnish, president and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana said the games are very important to families with a member who has intellectual disability and has “never excelled at anything.”

“This is the first opportunity a parent has to cheer for his/her child,” Furnish said, as well as an opportunity for a brother or sister to cheer for a sibling who has an intellectual disability and has not been able to participate in sports like they do. `

About 50 teams competed in the semi-finals and state championship basketball games (regulation and modified) and more than 90 athletes in individual skills competition, said Paula Meyer of ISU’s Communications and Marketing office.

Furnish said the tournament this weekend also starts the clock ticking for Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games in June, which will also be at ISU.

“Looking forward to coming back in June,” he said.

Special Olympics Indiana and ISU have strong historical ties.

Founded by two ISU faculty members in 1969, Special Olympics Indiana operated on the campus until the 1990s, Furnish said. ISU has been host to the Men’s State Basketball Tournament and the Summer Games since the early 1970s.

“By hosting this tournament and the summer games, it’s just keeping close to the history that we have with Special Olympics,” Meyer said. “It’s a great way for us to stay connected and keep that history and tradition alive.”

And that tradition is being passed on to future generations.

ISU student Daniel Riddell was among a group of students studying sports management who helped organize the weekend’s events. He said the experience has been valuable.

“I think it gives you good real-world experience,” Riddell said. On a personal level, he also had “heartwarming feelings working with these athletes.”

And the athletes will soon be back for the summer games.

“We love having the athletes, families and coaches here on campus,” Meyer said. “We consider them all Sycamores. They’re part of our family.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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