Special Olympics is a testament to facing challenges and never giving up

Local law enforcement, Special Olympics athletes and runners join in the annual Temecula Torch Run in 2019, which will be held virtually this year due to COVID-19. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Thousands of athletes come together to train, compete and pursue their goals each year at Special Olympics.

Sports manager Blake English first volunteered for his local Special Olympics Chapter and coached in the Temecula Valley program when a job opened up with Special Olympics Southern California at their Inland Empire office.

“I’ve been in sports my whole life,” English said. “I grew up playing just about everything but I played baseball all the way through college, so once I started coaching for them, I was doing basketball, softball.”

At Special Olympics Southern California, they offer year-round sports training and competition.

Sports manager Blake English participates in the 2019 Temecula Torch Run. Valley News/Courtesy photo

“We cover the Inland Empire, so all of Riverside and San Bernardino County,” English said.

Special Olympics is founded on serving those with intellectual disabilities.

“We take all levels; even in our sports we have all different skill levels,” English said. “They can also have a physical disability but they must have an intellectual disability, but it’s getting to be a little different now because of our school programs, we encompass all disabilities.

“We have 12 sports that we offer throughout the year and four different seasons, and so each sport usually consists of eight to 12 weeks of training,” he said. “We’ll have a couple of regional competitions that all lead up to a state chapter game to finish off each season.”

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things, he said.

“It basically canceled everything for the whole year,” English said. “The last in-person event we were able to have was in March right before the shutdown, but since then we haven’t been able to do any competitions, any in-person training.”

Right now, they currently have online fitness workouts that go live each day, including Zoom workouts that athletes can turn to and interact with the person that’s training with them.

“We’re hurting because we haven’t been able to have any in-person events, fundraising, so we’re missing out on a lot of that revenue,” English said. “The state funding that’s in the planning for next year, right now they’ve basically omitted us from the California budget plan.

Special Olympics athlete Brett Laza holds the flag for the 2019 Temecula Torch Run. Valley News/Courtesy photo
Special Olympics athlete Brett Laza competes in a variety of different sports, but his favorite is track and field. Valley News/Courtesy photo

“It’s a multi-million dollar revenue shortfall for Special Olympics California,” he said. “But that’s not finalized yet, but that affects next year not this year.”

The annual Temecula Torch Run will be virtual this year due to COVID-19, and is coming up Saturday, Aug. 29. The goal for the registration is to raise $20,000, but they are behind, having currently surpassed $10,000.

The run normally kicks off at Pechanga Resort Casino, goes to Old Town Temecula and into Temecula Valley Wine Country. The event will look different this year.

“The way the virtual event is going to work is we’re going to have a live event that airs on Aug. 29, we’re pre-recording it, but it’s going to air like it’s actually happening live,” English said.

“We have a host who’s a UFC legend, Dan Henderson; he’s going to be hosting the event and then you’re going to hear from a couple local law enforcement. You’re going to hear from Pechanga; you’re going to hear from Wilson Creek and you’re going to hear from a couple of our athletes,” English added.

Michelle Jones, local program coordinator for Temecula, began as a volunteer before moving to several different positions and into the title she has now.

“I’m responsible for all the athletes that are registered for the Temecula/Murrieta Valley area,” Jones said. “It encompasses Hemet athletes and pretty much up to the Lake Elsinore/Menifee border.”

Jones also maintains the activities for the area, she said.

“Registering them for the fall, winter, summer, spring sports that we have; it’s also working with all of the volunteers that are registered, getting them plugged in to coaching spots or being assistance for the athletic part of it,” Jones said. “I’m also coordinating and working with them for fundraisers.”

While the virtual platform has had its challenges, Jones said they’ve met that challenge in level of engagement.

“We’ve been doing a lot of marketing via social media, through Facebook, through Instagram, through email blasts, trying to engage athletes to participate and also to spread the word that we are, in fact, doing the virtual fundraiser,” Jones said. “I’m hopeful that it will be a success.”

Brett Laza, 28, is an athlete with Special Olympics, competing in track and field, tennis, floor hockey, volleyball and bowling – though his favorite is track and field.

“For the 2015 World Games, I went to Athens, Greece, to pick up the flame,” Laza said.

“Meeting new people, making new friends, being outside without coronavirus” are some of the reasons he loves to run, Laza said.

The farthest he’s run is a half-marathon.

“I did a 1 hour 58 minutes, and 1 hour 56 minutes run,” he said.

“My favorite part is seeing the joy on their face when they’ve accomplished something that no one thought possible,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re in first place or last place they are joyful in completing their activity, and the reward that they get whether it’s the medal that they’re wearing or the affirmation they’re getting from spectators and their co-athletes, they walk away just feeling good about themselves.”

Jones said that being a part of the Special Olympics has enriched her life.

“Just taking everything in life as it comes, and seeing the joy in whatever circumstance we’re in,” she said.

To learn more about Special Olympics Southern California, visit https://www.sosc.org/.

To read more about the petition requesting Special Olympics be included in the state budget for 2020-2021, visit https://www.votervoice.net/SpecialOlympics/campaigns/75141/respond.

Lexington Howe can be reached by email at lhowe@reedermedia.com.