My Journey in Athlete Leadership

Kristine Hughes officiating a volleyball game. She's standing on the court at one end of the net with her whistle in her mouth.
Kristine Hughes officiating at the Special Olympics North Carolina Summer Games at North Carolina State University.

On and off the field, Kristine Hughes is a champion of inclusion. She’s a Special Olympics athlete, an athlete leader, a certified coach, and an official. She is also the Athlete Leadership Manager and a Sargent Shriver Global Messenger for Special Olympics North Carolina. She currently plays golf and has competed in athletics, softball, tennis, soccer (football), basketball, bocce, and volleyball. As a coach, she is certified in 3-on-3 basketball and tennis, and she officiates volleyball. She is a veteran who served in the United States Navy from 1990-1992 aboard the USS Yellowstone. She was a lagger under the hull technician department and worked on pipes and generators to make them quieter and safer on frigates and destroyers.

I started competing with Special Olympics much later in life (2002) when I was already getting older and finding it harder to play sports. But I love and believe in the organization and wanted to find a way to still be active outside of the world of sports. That’s why I started reaching out and looking for other opportunities.

I’m definitely proud of all my medals from competition, but I’m most proud of my accomplishments as an athlete leader. I had to change how I look at being a part of Special Olympics: serving in an athlete leadership role is a new phase for me that I wouldn’t have thought about 10 or 15 years ago.

Special Olympics allows us to become leaders off the field of play. There are so many ways to be involved that there is something for everyone. I love that they’re highlighting athlete leaders who have made the big transition from athlete to coach or official. It can be scary, but we know our sport so well and have so much left to offer.

Kristine Hughes on the floor refereeing a volleyball match.

I became an official in 2012. I officiated volleyball at the last two Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in 2015 and in Abu Dhabi in 2019, and at the last two Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey in 2014 and in Seattle in 2018. I was definitely nervous for all four of them! Officiating on such a large stage was overwhelming at first just because I didn’t know what to expect. Each competition is a little bit different, even though the sport is the same. I just tried to take it all in, especially the first two times.

The 2015 World Games in LA were even more special because I was part of the “Countdown to the Special Olympics World Games with Robin Roberts” special that aired before the Opening Ceremony. For the first time, I felt like I was making an impact as an athlete leader and telling my story felt really good. That experience had the biggest impact on me. The experience in Abu Dhabi was amazing. I’d never left the country before, which added a layer of overwhelm.

To become an official, I attended a day-long in-person training where they went over the rules and hand signals officials use when calling games. After about a half-day of classroom work, we went out to show off what we’d learned by officiating a game. A rater watched and graded me. I was nervous because I didn’t have nearly as much volleyball experience as other folks did, but when we finished, he said I did well enough to get a USA patch. This allows me to officiate volleyball tournaments outside of Special Olympics and get paid for it. Each year, I take an additional test online to keep my skills sharp. I’m now a professional line judge for PAVO (Professional Association of Volleyball Officials), which means I can call lines in collegiate volleyball.

The down ref (on the floor) and up ref (in the stand) have two separate sets of responsibilities. The up ref calls captains together to explain rules before the game begins and does the coin toss to determine who serves first. The down ref keeps track of timing, substitutions, calling the net, and reinforcing what the up official calls.

My role changes for each game: we officiate one game up, one game down, and are then off for a game. I serve as a line judge if I have free time. I like line judging the best.

Being an athlete-official is so rare in Special Olympics, and I worked so hard to earn that qualification.

Being a leader is not easy and requires you to do the work, especially as an athlete-official. But you have to persevere and keep going because eventually the road is going to get smooth and you’ll be a role model for someone else. Face your fear about being a leader. You’re already a leader by stepping out of your comfort zone and becoming an athlete after maybe being told you can’t or shouldn’t. You just need to expand what you think a leader is.

Kristine poses with her Special Olympics USA World Games trading card and smiles.

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