It was on this day 50 years ago the vision reached the west.
The event was the first Western Regional Special Olympics, which included 900 athletes from Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. The stage was the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was the starting point for each state and its own chapter program, building upon the previous year’s first international Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The athletes in Los Angeles that day competed in the 50- and 300-yard dash, the 25- and 50-yard swim, and the softball throw.
For Rafer Johnson, a decorated Olympic champion, the feats he witnessed at the international Special Olympics Games in 1968 were enough inspiration to bring the same gift of sport to people with intellectual disabilities in California. He wanted to help build upon what his friend, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started on a farm in Maryland.
“Winning an Olympic medal is the greatest thrill in sports. It’s the dream of millions of school kids who work and train to run faster, swim faster, jump further or higher,” he said in the short film “A Dream to Grow On.”
“But you know, there are more than one million boys and girls in America who don’t know what it means to dream of being a champion or making the team. … They are three or four years behind in physical development because no one has helped them to catch up.”
It’s that type of personal investment and support system Johnson credits for his own success at UCLA in the 1950s and soon after on the global Olympic stage. He wanted to create a similar support system for individuals with intellectual disabilities. That support system included Ed Arnold, who served as the announcer for the Western Regional Special Olympics and would go on to become one of the founding board members for Special Olympics Southern California.
Arnold represented the California Jaycees, a service group dedicated to improving lives in the community.
“To see the face of a child that has never seen success of any kind all of a sudden a champion. A winner,” Arnold wrote in an article for the Jaycees’ newsletter about the first Western Regional Special Olympics. “The look of a parent who had journeyed all the way from Hawaii to see her child perform.
“This was an event that can be termed only as a fantastic success. If you want to help yourself, get involved with a project such as this. You’ll be helping kids who, up until now, have never known success of any kind. But most of all you’ll have a feeling that cannot be described…a beautiful feeling, one of pride at what these kids try to do.”
That first Western Regional Special Olympics is now known as Special Olympics Southern California’s Summer Games, which celebrated its 50th year of annual competition in June.
That vision expanded into a similar Fall Games competition, as well as standalone bowling and floor hockey seasons. In all, 12 sports are currently offered and another, cheerleading, waiting to be added to the fold. Unified Sports continue to be integrated into year-round competitions. School and district partnerships have allowed for more opportunities.
That’s not all that has expanded, either. The support system, including dedicated coaches and other volunteers, is up to 19,900 individuals helping to make a lifetime of memories for 37,800 athletes across Southern California.
One thing has not changed, though, and that’s the feeling coaches and volunteers get, knowing they have impacted a person’s life for the better.
“Everybody, to a person, who volunteers… they feel like they get more than they give (out of volunteering),” said Ava Carberry, a coach for Westside for the past 31 years, at last month’s Summer Games.
“I wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t as much fun and rewarding now, as it was back in 1988 when I started.”