By Kit Maher, '17
On Saturday afternoons, the Bernard T. Lomas Fieldhouse inside the Dow Recreation & Wellness Center is typically unoccupied. However, on Saturday, April 18, the gym was in a state of organized chaos. Fourteen Special Olympic volleyball teams from different areas of Michigan came to Albion to compete in a day-long tournament. Three different courts were set up alongside each other with rows of chairs for spectators and scorekeepers. Members of the Albion College volleyball team volunteered as line judges, and sat in their elevated chairs with whistles.
Walking inside to watch the games, I found the Area 19 team warming up for their 1 p.m. match on the middle court. Dressed in red and white jerseys, they practiced bumping and spiking the ball with two of their coaches, Melissa Walton, Albion’s senior associate athletic director, and Melissa Wilson, one of three seniors on the Briton women’s lacrosse squad.
The first serve of the game was an ace by Area 19, and the team quickly took a 5-0 lead against their opponents. It was clear that they were the more skilled team, but they played with a positive competitiveness. High fives were seen often, and when one teammate fell down trying to return a serve, another quickly helped her up. The atmosphere was consistently supportive and encouraging; when the teams got into volleys back and forth the crowd would erupt in cheering and applause. The athletes had their game faces on and used teamwork, with Area 19 ultimately winning the game.
Filling a need
Three years ago, Special Olympics volleyball at Albion College was non-existent. But for Walton, Special Olympics has always played a large role in her life. Growing up, Walton would spend summers in Washington, D.C., where her aunt works for the national office.
“When I went and visited there in the summer, it was just standard practice that all these Special Olympians were around, because my cousins coached five different teams. At any given time there would be five to 10 Special Olympians in their house just visiting,” Walton said. “That’s how I even knew Special Olympics existed, because coming from a small town we had nothing like that.”
Walton became more involved in the organization when she attended graduate school at Central Michigan University. CMU hosts the Special Olympic State Games every summer, and Walton began by running the powerlifting event. After receiving her masters in sports administration, Walton worked at Central Michigan for six years as assistant director of speed, strength, and development.
In March of 2004, Walton started working at Albion as the head volleyball coach and associate athletic director for internal operations. Eight years later she gained her current position as senior associate athletic director. Alongside her responsibilities at Albion College, continuing her involvement in Special Olympics through neighboring communities was very important to Walton.
Albion, Michigan, lies in Special Olympics Area 19, which covers Calhoun and Jackson Counties. There are 559 athletes that participate in a variety of sports, including basketball, bocce ball, bowling, gymnastics, flag football, soccer, weight lifting, cross-country skiing, volleyball and more. Although Jackson and Calhoun Counties are in the same area, the athletes participate in Special Olympics separately. This is because Calhoun County Special Olympics is a school-based organization.
“The problem with the school-based organization is once (the Special Olympians) graduate what do they have? Nothing. The struggle has been for me to get the Calhoun people to want to join a team. Jackson is so separate it’s been difficult. Jackson did have an office though; they are one of the few people who had an office in the state, and in the office that’s actually where they practiced basketball and powerlifting,” Walton explained.
Issues arose when the Jackson office was sold a few years back. Finding adequate practice facilities and transportation was a big struggle until Walton stepped up.
“The people from Calhoun, since they are mostly school-based, their parents drive them without a problem, but people from Jackson—that’s an issue. A lot of them are their own guardians, but don’t drive, so we’ve always had to provide transportation for them,” Walton said.
Reaching the goal: A unified team
As former head volleyball coach for the Britons, one of Walton’s main goals was to create an organized Area 19 volleyball team. It took two years to accomplish, but she was able to develop a team in the spring of 2013. The next year, Walton acquired enough players for two teams, and this year there are three teams competing. What’s unique about this year is that a unified team, with Special Olympians and Albion College students alike, is competing for the first time.
Emily DeWaters, Albion’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president and a junior on the Briton women’s basketball squad, has been volunteering for the Special Olympics at Albion for two years. She said, “The unified team is a great experience for the Olympians as well as our college kids. Both groups have so much to offer the other in terms of learning. You can tell the Olympians have so much fun with it and look up to the college kids.”
Three current Briton student-athletes, men’s soccer goalkeeper Andrew Bobowski and men’s basketball players Jordan Herron and Travell Oakes, play on the unified team, as well as former Briton and certified Special Olympics coach, Jalyn Ingalls and Albion senior Paxton Mueller. Mueller has found a new appreciation for life through her involvement in the Special Olympics.
“It makes me realize the opportunities I have that I take for granted,” Mueller said, “It makes me feel bad when I complain about something, because (the Special Olympians) are always just happy and excited to be alive.”
The unified team members aren’t the only Albion College students involved in the Special Olympics on campus. Nearly every week this spring, a different Albion sports team volunteered at a volleyball practice. I had the opportunity to experience a practice with my lacrosse team. We showed up to Kresge Gym ready to play with about 30 athletes of varying skill level. It was an afternoon loaded with smiles and hugs, especially since Thomas, one of the athletes, was celebrating a birthday.
A few weeks later I went to another practice when the women’s soccer team was helping out. I sat on the sidelines watching the interactions between the Special Olympian teammates, as well as the volunteers. What really stood out to me, from an observer’s point of view, was the sportsmanship between the players. They were giving each other high fives, encouraging each other when they made a mistake, and laughing with the volunteers.
Looking ahead to the State Games
These practices aren’t strictly for fun though; the athletes are working towards a larger goal. In order to qualify for the state games, Special Olympic teams have to compete in three tournaments. The tournament Albion hosted on April 18 ensured the Area 19 team their spot in the state games, which are hosted at Central Michigan University on May 28-30.
The Area 19 teams are tough competitors, but their sportsmanship never falters. They are always respectful of their teammates and opponents, as well as the game. It seems there is something to learn from these athletes, especially in a society where individual fame and gain have dominated the professional sports world.
Wilson agrees that although there is a competitive edge in the game, sportsmanship overpowers it. She said, “Our athletes provide endless support to not only other players on our team, but opposing teams as well. Whether it is chasing down a loose ball, helping set up a teammate to serve, or a high five/hand shake after a game, these athletes show continuous support for each other and those around them.”
Walton sparked Wilson’s involvement in the Special Olympics three years ago. There was a great need for volleyball coaches, and Wilson had the experience, since she played volleyball at Albion the first two years of her college career. She became a certified coach in the spring of her sophomore year, and worked with the modified team. This year she is not a coach, but she still volunteers across the board. Wilson said, “Even though I don’t coach the modified team anymore, I still pretty much go to all of their games and events.”
Since her time at Albion, Wilson has formed close relationships with the Special Olympian athletes. “A couple of them text me all the time, Facebook me all the time. I missed one practice for a lacrosse game, and I think I got four Facebook messages saying, ‘Where were you? Why weren’t you there?’” Wilson said. “A lot of them see me now as a friend.”
For Walton, being able to pass down her love of Special Olympics to students at Albion has made all the time and effort she’s spent growing the program worth it. “When I was 18-22 I didn’t have Special Olympics in my life. I didn’t have it until grad school, and to be able to give that to somebody who’s 18-22 years old that now becomes a certified coach—and might be able to do it for the rest of their life—that’s kind of why you do it.”
In regards to Albion’s involvement, Area Director Juanita Pampuch said, “We appreciate it. For me, being the mother of an athlete and area director, it’s great to see (Albion) athletes out here helping out.”
Recently the College has put an emphasis on creating a more unified relationship with the surrounding communities of Marshall, Albion, and Jackson. The success of the Special Olympic program through Walton’s efforts over the past few years have helped to bridge the gap and create a sense of community that hasn’t been seen before. Pampuch said, “If it wasn’t for Melissa Walton none of this would be possible.”
On the back of Juanita’s business card, I read the oath all Special Olympic athletes state upon entering a sports season: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt.” With the State Games coming up this summer, the traditional, modified and unified Area 19 athletes will have their chance to prove just how brave they really are.