More than 180 athletes took part in soccer, softball, tennis and skills competitions at the 2019 North Divisional Fall Games last Saturday in Santa Maria.
For athletes like Maria Sandoval of Santa Maria, the competitions represent more than just a game. The 56-year-old is often smiling, laughing and even encouraging those she competes against.
On this particular day, Maria and fellow Santa Maria athlete Taylor Stewart were going head to head on the tennis court. Tennis wasn’t a sport that Maria was drawn to, at first, but it has since grown on her.
“I never liked it before, but now I like it,” said Maria, who also competes in bocce and swimming.
In between points, Maria was complimentary of Taylor’s abilities, often shouting from across the net, “Nice shot!”
The motive: To simply offer positive reinforcement to anyone who may need it. After 41 years of competing with Special Olympics, she’s learned to “comfort them when they need somebody.”
“Sometimes (athletes) get upset,” Maria said.
“I love Special Olympics. I can meet people and socialize with everybody.”
Maria also sees the power of sport as a way to inspire her 5-year-old great niece, Nadine, who has Down syndrome.
“Some day she can be like me,” Maria said.
It’s not just prospective athletes who can draw inspiration at such events, either.
On another tennis court was Kris Higgins, a second-time volunteer who was handling scorekeeping duties. The 22-year-old has experience with individuals with intellectual disabilities as a special education aide at Rosedale North Elementary School in Bakersfield.
Kris noted that there were a number of familiar faces he remembered from his first volunteer experience.
“I’ve made these connections with them, which is really awesome,” he said.
The match Kris oversaw, in particular, was one with great back-and-forth action. It was the type of intense match and skill level that often doesn’t get associated with Special Olympics athletes.
“The matches are so good,” Kris said. “I love watching tennis, and I feel the same exact way that I would watch any other person. It’s really awesome.
“You have this community that people have misconceptions about, and once you start to get to know them you create this bond with people you never thought you would.”
Inside the SOSC is a blog managed by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.