All Special Olympics Programs are experiencing a new kind of normal in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing all to go virtual this year. In the Special Olympics North America (SONA) Region alone, 35 Programs were inspired to develop creative new ways to host and honor their annual Summer Games, many choosing the same dates initially scheduled for in-person activities and almost all capping off their celebrations with a virtual dance. Let's highlight some of the ways SONA Programs connected their communities through virtual means this summer.
In the Northeast United States, Special Olympics Massachusetts held a two-day Virtual Summer Games June 12 – 13, with over 400 athletes, coaches, volunteers and Unified partners who participated in 11 different athletic at-home challenges leading up to the weekend. The virtual festivities included an Opening Ceremony, a Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) Cruiser Convoy and recap shows, including challenge highlights. Special Olympics Connecticut's Virtual Summer Games offered 12 activities in athletics, cycling, tennis and soccer, with a virtual Opening Ceremony on June 12 and release of an honor roll of athlete accomplishments on July 13. Special Olympics Rhode Island held a practice week May 4 – 10, with participants submitting scores for three sports through May 22 and a spirit week leading up to their Virtual Summer Games celebration, which featured a live torch lighting. Special Olympics Vermont hosted SummerFest 2020, with over 100 athletes earning a ribbon for completing a six-week fitness program and two fundraisers securing over $20,000 to support SOVT. Special Olympics New Hampshire honored their June 4 – 6 Summer Games by taking over a radio station from Noon – 9 pm ET.
In the Mid-Atlantic, the creativity continued. Special Olympics Maryland held a virtual block party on June 6 that included live workouts and nutrition sessions. Special Olympics Delaware celebrated a spirit week in honor of their Summer Games, culminating in a live dance party. Special Olympics New York offered their Sports Season at Home from May 18 – July 9. Athletes trained and competed in 12 athletic events before the final celebration event. Special Olympics DC also held a wide variety of programming opportunities, including 11 events, during their Virtual Summer Games, running June 8 – 29. During their Virtual Summer Games, Special Olympics New Jersey included bocce, gymnastics, track and field, powerlifting and tennis activities, as well as Healthy Athletes and Young Athletes programming. More than 1,000 people participated in 22 challenges during Special Olympics Pennsylvania Virtual Summer Games.
In the southern states, Special Olympics Florida offered a non-competitive spirit week, May 11 – 15, and finished with a dance party on May 16. Special Olympics Kentucky, from May 28 – June 5, held a fundraising campaign asking their fans and followers to help raise a total of $11,300 ($1 for each athlete in the state). Special Olympics Texas held events in athletics, tennis, cycling and soccer. Special Olympics North Carolina had a non-competitive virtual celebration from May 29 – 31. It featured a message from NC Governor Roy Cooper, live workouts and a dance party. Tennessee was the first Program to launch and complete their Virtual Summer Games from May 11 – 15. Programming was presented by a different key funding partner each day. Special Olympics Tennessee also hosted a month-long fitness challenge for athletes and Unified partners.
The Great Lakes states saw Special Olympics Illinois hold its Virtual Summer Games June 9 – 14, featuring daily themes, an eSports tournament and a Closing Ceremony. Special Olympics Indiana had a virtual Torch Run, sports and fitness challenge and dance party during its Virtual Summer Games June 15 – July 25. In Wisconsin, Special Olympics athletes could participate in up to 11 events during Virtual Summer Games May 4 – June 4. Special Olympics Michigan had competitive events in powerlifting, athletics, volleyball, gymnastics, basketball and Fit 5 from June 19 – 25. Athletes could also participate in various social events, like American Sign Language (ASL) lessons, dance parties and arts and crafts. Special Olympics Minnesota, the first to plan a Virtual Summer Games held its Virtual Summer Games from April 20 – May 18, and then helped guide many other Programs in the planning of their events.
In the Midwest, Special Olympics Kansas held its Virtual Summer Games, including a talent show and a Healthy Athletes component May 8 – June 7. Special Olympics Missouri included a virtual Torch Run and dance party in their Virtual Summer Games held June 5 – 6. An Opening Ceremony kicked off Special Olympics Oklahoma's Virtual Summer Games on May 13. Special Olympics Iowa offered opportunities for athletes, Unified partners, coaches and fans to compete in athletics, basketball and Fit 5 events from May 3 – 23.
Out west, Special Olympics Montana offered training and competition activities from May 18 – July 17 for athletes and Unified partners of all ability levels. Events were released throughout the two months, allowing athletes and Unified partners to compete in multiple activities. Special Olympics North Dakota held its Virtual Summer Games May 11 – June 11, with training running May 11 – June 1. Athletes could choose from 11 events and enjoyed a virtual awards ceremony on June 11. From June 21 – 27, Special Olympics Colorado offered gymnastics, powerlifting, athletics, swimming and soccer competitions during its Virtual Summer Games, which also included a talent show to showcase the abilities of SOCO athletes. In Nevada, Special Olympics athletes had a sports and fitness-based Virtual Summer Games from June 22 – 26. Throughout the week, athletes could participate in daily lunch and learn with Healthy Athletes Clinical Directors. Special Olympics New Mexico created a competition video featuring athletes from around the state.
In California, Special Olympics Northern California held Virtual Games throughout June. From June 29 – July 2, athletes enjoyed live virtual content, including workouts, awards ceremonies, scavenger hunts and game nights. Special Olympics Southern California held a Weekend of Virtual Inclusion, including a virtual fundraising breakfast with athletes and an athlete dance celebration.
Special Olympics Washington, the host state of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, held its Virtual Summer Games over three weeks in August. Athletes worldwide were invited to compete in athletics, golf, soccer, softball and a fitness challenge. Spirit Week, from August 17 – 21, featured awards ceremonies, virtual workouts and a dance party. Special Olympics Alaska held its Virtual Summer Games April 30 – May 18, with an awards ceremony on May 28 that included a video scroll of all the participants and their accomplishments in events like sit-ups, 100 meter dash and sport skills competitions.
In Canada, Special Olympics Ontario's Virtual Games were held throughout July. Competitive events were offered in basketball, powerlifting, rhythmic gymnastics, swimming and 10-pin bowling. A virtual Fun Zone was also provided and featured “Minute to Win It” style activities.
As summer comes to a close and Programs across the SONA Region wrap up their Virtual Summer Games, the Special Olympics movement continues to develop ways to stay connected virtually in the days and weeks to come. Many Programs will offer Virtual Fall Games and provide other opportunities to engage their communities in unique ways, delivering the Special Olympics mission despite the global pandemic.