For most of her youth, Emma Haug, a coach for Special Olympics Washington, played soccer and volleyball, but as she entered the hallways of high school, sports became secondary. Not because she didn’t like them anymore, but life happens, and she pursued other ventures. She realized the value in sports after graduating from Washington State University in 2020. “Sports bring people together, whether or not you know what’s happening,” Haug says. “And I don’t think it was until that connection that I truly valued, understood and fell in love with all sports. They bring people together, and that’s all that matters.”
During her undergraduate studies, she needed volunteer hours and turned to Special Olympics Washington. Starting with Young Athletes, a program that introduces basic sports skills to children with and without intellectual disabilities in the 2- to 7-year-old age group, she eventually branched out and became invested in the Special Olympics movement.
Haug, who coaches basketball, bocce and bowling, was awarded the Special Olympics North America Rising Star Award in April 2022. The award, given by Special Olympics North America, honors coaches for their contributions and efforts to enhance the lives of Special Olympics athletes. The Spokane, Washington–based coach guided her bowling athletes to the State Games, and they each qualified for the USA Games in Florida (June 5–12), a feat highlighting her success as a coach. (Unfortunately, none of her athletes made it through the random draw to attend the USA Games.)
Riley Stockton, the former Director of Sport Development, Training and Education for Special Olympics Washington, says, “Emma is very engaged as a coach and is always up to date with new rules and developments within our state. She always treats volunteers, staff members and other teams with the utmost respect.”
Haug can’t help but think happy thoughts when reflecting on the impact she has had on her athletes. The award is a friendly reminder to Haug that although sometimes it feels like she isn’t making any progress—she is. “My athletes are the whole reason I coach, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” she says. “This has definitely opened my eyes to how big of an impact I am making on my athletes, and honestly, it excites, overwhelms and fills me with so much joy!”
When she isn’t coaching on the court or in the bowling alley, she is encouraging athletes to live a healthy lifestyle. In the state’s Fit5 program, Special Olympics Washington encourages athletes to exercise, eat healthy and drink water. The program can be emphasized with smaller goals to have a larger amount of success throughout the week. “By demonstrating a healthy lifestyle myself, I am also influencing my athletes to follow one outside of practice,” she says. She advocates for healthier food at events, and instead of having just one option like pizza, she provides a variety of healthier options.
The 24-year-old coach also demonstrates teamwork, and that has played a vital role in building a flourishing program. “I’ve realized early on that I cannot do things by myself. I get overwhelmed and things don’t turn out the way I plan,” she says. “So, by reaching out to my community—parents, coworkers, experienced coaches, community members and so many others—I’ve been able to help create a great program that is continuing to grow.”
Haug is also eager to grow as a coach, having participated in three coaches’ conferences to develop the necessary skills to be an effective leader. It’s helped her collaborate with other coaches and given her the skill set to do more one-on-one focused coaching with the athletes.
And that will only put her in the perfect position to thrive in her current role and branch out to other areas. “We foresee Emma having a large involvement in the future of Special Olympics Washington,” Stockton says. “The sky’s the limit for her!”
Special Olympics is proud to partner with Gallagher, Official Sponsor of Special Olympics International Sport and Coach Programming. Special Olympics and Gallagher are empowering athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to face their future with confidence—on and off the playing field—through quality coaching and sports training experiences. Thanks to Gallagher’s support, a $1500 stipend has been awarded to Special Olympics Washington to facilitate the professional development of the winner and the growth of the Coach Education Program within Special Olympics Washington.