Special Olympics return to University of Missouri benefits athletes
Fadraon Anderson, dressed in a pressed black button-up shirt, sleek belt buckle and comfy jeans, stood confidently at the Mizzou Rec Center on Saturday night.
He had a successful day competing in the long jump, 200 meter sprint, 400 meter sprint and 4×100 meter relay, winning two gold medals and a bronze.
Anderson asked a friend to hold his glass, a tall strawberry lemonade fit for a champ, as he recounted his accomplishments at a dance party.
“Having fun is the most important thing,” Anderson said. “You go out and win a race, and you have fun doing it, but you also have fun doing it with a lot of your friends.”
Anderson was one of more than 1,000 Special Olympics Missouri athletes returning to the University of Missouri in Columbia for the first time since 2014.
Sending him back to MU gave the athletes the chance to perform at a Southeastern Conference sports facility in a big setting. It also gave the athletes a chance to ensure their health was in top shape after the Games.
Last year the Games returned to Colombia for one day at Hickman High and 2022 marked the return of the first slate of three-day competitions since 2018.
In 2019, the Jefferson City tornadoes canceled the Games and the pandemic canceled the 2020 Games.
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“We are excited to be back to normal,” Special Olympics Missouri Senior Program Manager Melinda Wrye-Washington said in a press release announcing the return of the games. “I know our athletes, coaches, unified partners and volunteers are equally thrilled.”
This return to normal has also allowed athletes to get properly screened at SOMO health and wellness clinics.
Ashley Popejoy and Steph Wilson, two pediatric dentists who were part of Healthy Athletes Park on Saturday night, traveled to Columbia to perform exams on participating athletes.
Popejoy said for her and Wilson specifically as dentists, the dental clinic has strengthened dental hygiene while allowing them to see if athletes have any urgent conditions they need to deal with.
Popejoy practices in the Springfield area, while Wilson practices in Kansas City.
“We do that at most events, so we see some of the same kids frequently,” Popejoy said. “Probably the most impactful thing is that we can talk to their caregivers or their coaches about what type of Medicaid do you have?”
In addition to the dental hygienists present, there were also hearing, fitness and foot care specialists who had the chance to see athletes.
Holding these clinics during events as big as the Summer Olympics gives doctors a chance to see patients on a larger scale. Popejoy said she saw more than 100 athletes on Saturday night, which means about 10% of all athletes had their dental hygiene checked.
It’s a way for medical professionals and caregivers to ensure the health of athletes while providing them with an athletic experience at modern, large-scale athletic facilities in central Missouri.
Anderson said it’s good when the event is bigger and grander. The bigger the event, the more athletes are there to compete and celebrate those achievements afterwards.
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“Tough competitions like this, you get nervous,” Anderson said. “You have people saying ‘you can do it’, you have friends saying ‘you can do it’. You just have that confidence.”
Doctors also revel in the experience. Wilson said she and other doctors were personally following some of the athletes they performed tests on over the weekend.
It is the knowledge that they have personally helped someone who needs help with their health that is left with them.
“We appreciate it, I’d like to say more than them,” Wilson said. “We leave here super, super happy and blessed, and we’ve touched the hearts of a lot of people.”
The Games ended on Sunday when the athletes completed the athletics events, which started on Saturday along with powerlifting and swimming.
The athletes had fun. They were also lucky to stay healthy. The return of the Games to MU highlighted what makes the Special Olympics a significant event statewide.
“Not many people get the chance to do that,” Anderson said.
Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing sports coverage for the University of Missouri and Boone County. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at [email protected] or 573-815-1857.