Over the past two and a half months, the work of Special Olympics and the seven global Regions that it covers has looked very different. Amidst the challenge of physical distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Special Olympics events and activities that bring people of all abilities and skills together have been postponed or canceled. A new priority has emerged of promoting health and connections in safe, virtual ways for the millions of Special Olympics athletes and partners worldwide.
For the team of employees who work at Special Olympics, life has changed as well. The organization has transitioned to remote work, travel has stopped and workspaces have gone from desks and office chairs to kitchen tables for many. The Special Olympics team, one that is so often motivated by personal connection, needed a creative way to live the purpose of the organization and connect, include and participate in healthy activity in a remote way.
To answer this challenge, an inclusive group of four staff members—Jerry Holy, Caitlin Josten, Scott George and Elise Calanni—came up with an idea for a fitness challenge that could be done remotely. Focusing on what team members can do during this time instead of what they cannot, the group organized a virtual 5K race. The idea was simple—Special Olympics team members would be given a period of time to complete the race, running or walking, from their remote locations. Participants were encouraged to share photos of themselves either before, during or after the race. The results and photos brought a sense of togetherness and connectedness across an organization now working from home.
Like a true sport organization, there was also an opportunity for competition. Team members chose to participate in either the Competitive Division or the Just for Fun Division. The Competitive Division racers were asked to submit a time after finishing.
Over the course of eight days from May 18-25, 2020, the first-ever Special Olympics Virtual 5K was held. Across all seven of the Special Olympics Regions, members of the Special Olympics team put on their favorite Special Olympics shirt, laced up their athletic shoes and took to the street, trails or treadmill for the race. Many of the racers ran or walked in protective facemasks, a visual that no matter the time or circumstances, will serve as an emblem of the current pandemic. Some of the team raced alongside family members and roommates that they live with and a few even took their pet dogs with them on the race.
In total, 74 team members completed the race—together covering a distance of more than 370,000 meters. There were 46 people who ran and 28 people who walked the 5,000 meters. The fastest runner in the Competitive division was Will Byrne with a time of 18 minutes, 51 seconds. The fastest walker in the Competitive division was Christy Weir with a time of 56 minutes, 32 seconds. Participants represented all administrative levels of the organization from new members of the SOI team like HR Intern Jeremy Hardigree to CEO Mary Davis. It was a truly inclusive and unifying event for the organization.
Jerry Holy, a Specialist with Unified Champion Schools and a Special Olympics Virginia athlete, was the driving force in planning the SOI Virtual 5K. Shortly after he started working remotely and his Special Olympics competitions were canceled due to COVID-19, Holy signed up for numerous virtual races. It kept him energized, active and healthy. Seeing the positive impact virtual races had on his life during social distancing, he wanted to share this with the rest of the Special Olympics team. Holy reflected on the race, “During these times of uncertainty and difficulty, we all need a morale boost and a sense of belonging among ourselves. The sense of inclusion and neurodiversity extended beyond the staff. It extended to family members and pets. The opportunity to appreciate what we have currently in these times makes us realize how we are truly blessed. That includes family, friends, pets and nature. We are all in this together!”