Special Olympics Nebraska offers athletes of all abilities the chance to compete
For 8-year-old Nick Wright, it was a chance to be like his older siblings. For 32-year-old Melissa Giersch, it was a chance to be a vocal advocate. For 18-year-old Skylar Simmonds, it was the chance to feel proud.
For Nick, Melissa, Skylar, and thousands like them, Special Olympics Nebraska is more than just an occasional sporting event. The organization gives individuals with intellectual disabilities of all ages the opportunity to develop physical fitness, experience joy, build friendships, and share their gifts and skills. The games are a chance to be true athletes.
“I like to prove people wrong,” said Skylar, whose track skills recently earned her a place in the national games. “People with disabilities can do what people without disabilities can do. The sky’s the limit.”
Special Olympics Nebraska (SONE) serves over 5,000 athletes across the state. Sports are at the heart of the organization: SONE offers year-round training and competition at all ability levels in 19 different sports, from swimming and basketball to bocce and roller skating. Athletes are assigned to competition divisions based on actual performance, preliminary heats, and age to help ensure true competition.
The athletes compete for glory at state, national, and international competitions. Every summer, the three-day Special Olympics Nebraska Summer Games bring over 1,000 athletes together to compete for a spot on the national delegation. For many athletes, the games are a culmination of months of hard work.
“It means the world to these athletes to get this opportunity to compete, have crowds cheer for them, and see the scale at which the community supports them,” said Kelli Bello, SONE development and media coordinator.
Both athletes and family members benefit from the camaraderie and community SONE offers. Alisa Hoffman, a SONE staff member who is also the parent of an athlete, remembers her son’s first competition clearly.
“The smile on Matt’s face at the competition was priceless,” she stated. “We knew immediately that we had found our place at Special Olympics, surrounded by families and new friends that ‘got’ what it meant to raise a child with special needs.”
Special Olympics came at the right time for Skylar. The teenager had been struggling with anxiety and needed something to help her stay active, said her father, Steve Simmonds. Since starting with SONE, Skylar has earned numerous awards, competed at the national games and served as an ambassador. She has explored hobbies like crochet, lifted school spirit as the Millard South High School mascot, and started planning a future after high school.
“Looking back on where we were with Skylar just four short years ago as she began her freshman year at Millard South, her transformation, growth, and accomplishments have been amazing to see,” Steve said. “This is not the Skylar we knew four years ago; this is a Skylar that has grown wildly and positively with the help of many positive experiences. It is not a coincidence that this change in Skylar parallels very closely to her participation in Special Olympics.”
In addition to sports, SONE offers multiple initiatives to support its athletes and advocate for their needs. The Healthy Athletes program offers free health screenings for athletes at state competitions and referrals for follow-up care. The Athlete Leadership program allows athletes to grow their leadership and public speaking skills by working with mentors from Gallup. Participants then take on the role of SONE ambassadors and self-advocates at schools, clubs, or businesses.
Nick got involved with SONE through its Young Athletes program for children ages 2 to 7. The program is designed to introduce young children to the world of sports, helping them improve physically, cognitively, and socially. The program also offers parents the opportunity to network with other families. For mother Heather Wright, the program serves as a place of support, where families can share resources, frustrations, and triumphs.
“The best thing for Nick about being a Special Olympics athlete is that it is something that makes him just like every other kid,” Heather said. “It gives him a place to have fun and deepen friendships with his fellow athletes and special education classmates, but it also gives him common ground to discuss with his typical peers at school.”
Rick Childree, director of sports and competition, has watched the organization grow in scope since he first started volunteering in the 1980s. SONE counts on a passionate network of over 8,000 volunteers to support its competitions and other programs. As more families have become aware of the program, the number of athletes has grown, too. Outreach to individuals with autism has also increased SONE’s athlete population.
As SONE’s reputation grows, Childree has worked to make the games as professional as possible. Competition judges and officials are often pulled from sports associations and organizations. Judges will make special accommodations for athletes with physical limitations, but otherwise, the rules are generally the same as one would find in other competitions. “I would put our athletes up against any athlete in the state of the Nebraska,” mentioned Childree.
One difference between Special Olympics events and other competitions is the attitude toward sportsmanship. High fives and hugs for opposing teams are a common sight at a Special Olympics event, Bello said. At a recent track meet, Bello saw a track athlete trip and fall, only to be helped up by another competitor who stopped and turned around in the middle of the race. The athletes walked across the finish line together.
“Our athletes are out to do their best and win a medal,” Childree said. “But if they don’t win a medal, they will also be the first to turn around and congratulate whoever did win the race.”
Bello and her SONE colleagues are working to reduce barriers between intellectually disabled students and typically abled students, especially in schools. Project Unify seeks to create unified learning environments that bring together students of varying abilities in schools across Nebraska. Bringing students together benefits both parties by breaking down stereotypes and fostering friendships among people who are different, according to Bello. “It teaches you not to pre-judge people — or underestimate people just because they are different,” she said.
Myrle Giersch, Melissa’s father, has watched his daughter grow and mature through participation with the Special Olympics. The experience has opened his eyes to how capable athletes can be, and how much they can give back. “They’ve got a wealth of things they can give to society, the world, and to us,” he said.
Through sports and the Athlete Leadership program, Melissa said she has had the opportunity to reach for and achieve her goals. She still gets nervous before a competition, but it’s an excited nervous. “After all”, she added, “it’s all about fun.”
Special Olympic events
• Alpine skiing
• Cross country skiing
• Flag football
• Floor hockey
• Roller skating
To learn more about Special Olympics Nebraska and volunteer opportunities, visit