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Community Impact

What’s in a Name? For the Special Olympics North America Lifetime Achievement Award, It’s All About Longtime Coach Annette Lynch

A highly decorated Special Olympics coach, Annette Lynch has several favorite memories, but there is one in particular that stands out. Her Special Olympics Virginia Area 26 basketball team, the Dulles Cowboys, surprisingly qualified for the 1995 Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Connecticut.

As excited as they were to be selected, they also knew they had some work to do. Following the regular season, the team continued to train for six weeks. They practiced three times a week, with a scrimmage scheduled for one of those days. By the time it came to travel to Connecticut, the Cowboys had 10 games played. “I mentioned to them that they should feel good about what they were doing because of their preparation,” Lynch says. “I told them nobody has done what you all have done these last six weeks.”

A group of Special Olympics basketball athletes and their coaches pose for a group photo.
Annette Lynch (far right) has influenced countless athletes during her coaching career, including the basketball team she took to the 1995 Special Olympics World Games in Connecticut.

With confidence instilled in them, they won the first game. When matched up against Special Olympics Vermont, it was a hard-fought back-and-forth game. With three minutes left, the Cowboys trailed by six points. Lynch dialed up a play that would work to their advantage. The plan was to bounce pass the ball to athlete Carl Cooper, who wore thick glasses and could only see that type of pass.

“I left [Carl] on offense so that four of our players were playing defense against five of their players,” Lynch explained. “Our first pass was always to the point guard, our best player on the team. He threw it down the court so that it bounced, and Carl got the pass, turned around and took the set shot—and it went in.”

On the last shot of the game, they did the same. Bounce pass to Cooper. Unfortunately, he missed the shot, but the opportunity was not missed. His teammate, who had cerebral palsy, got the rebound and hit the buzzer beater to win the game. They went on to face Honduras in the next round but lost. They earned the bronze medal, defeating Vermont in what Lynch calls a “carbon copy” of their first matchup a few days prior.

That is just one of many experiences that paid value to a career that would create so many opportunities for athletes, officials and those in leadership roles. Special Olympics North America recently named the Annette Lynch Lifetime Achievement Award for Coaching after Lynch for her myriad of contributions to the organization, including her unwavering commitment to developing high-quality coaches. She constantly raised the bar for Special Olympics Programs to produce quality coaches and for coaches themselves to strive to be the best they could be for the benefit of the athletes.

“It’s an incredible honor to be recognized. When they told me of this honor I said, ‘You know, lifetime achievement awards, they generally give them to people after they pass away,’” Lynch said with a laugh. “It was nice that I can be recognized and enjoy it while I’m still here.”

A black and white photo shows a female basketball player taking a jump shot.
Lynch has translated her success as an athlete into helping coaches become better prepared to support Special Olympics athletes.

While there were several coaches nominated to win the award, 76-year-old Lynch was the only coach in the running to have her name attached it to. “The selection committee felt very strongly that naming this award after Annette would reflect how much impact she has had on the quality of coaching in Special Olympics,” says Gary Cimaglia, Senior Manager of Coaching and Sport Education for Special Olympics North America. “Although she was initially considered to be the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, the committee felt as prestigious of an honor as it would be to receive the award, naming it after her really emphasized her value to Special Olympics and the development of coaching.”

Lynch’s monumental impact has been highlighted in a variety of areas—from volunteering, to coaching, to being employed at various levels within the Special Olympics movement. After playing on the women’s national basketball team for the U.S. in the late 1960s, she was hired as basketball director for Special Olympics, Inc. in 1989. She also happened to be the first woman hired for that role. At the global level, Lynch managed the train-the-trainer program, which assisted in the training and education of Special Olympics coaches and officials worldwide. These resources and materials included the development of the Special Olympics Global Coach Education System. In later years, when employed by Special Olympics Maryland and Special Olympics North America, she continued her major focus and passion for coaching excellence and sport education with oversight of coach development.

Lynch continues to make an impact in her many leadership roles. Recently she took part in a “Women in Sports” webinar and discussed the growth of women in sports over the last 50 years, with the introduction to Title IX and beyond. Women leaders within the Special Olympics movement also explored female leadership through a variety of experiences.

While deeply humbled by the recognition, Lynch does not forget to give credit where credit is due. “It’s really a testament to not only the work, but also the athletes who have learned from more prepared coaches,” Lynch says.

That humble attitude is another reason her name will live in perpetuity with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Coaching. With more than 50 years of coaching experience, she has no plans of stopping.

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