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By Kat Krtnick
As part of the 75th Celebration of March Madness, for first time in history, the NCAA Divisions I, II and III men’s basketball championships will be played in the same city during the same weekend.
The brilliant beam of the stadium lights. Lines of fans painted from head to toe in school colors. “We Will Rock You” blaring from the bands. Scents of buttery popcorn wafting through the arena. Intoxicating squeaks of sneakers on a freshly waxed gymnasium floor. The “swish” of a perfectly arched shot sifting through the net.
A collection of athletes await their moment in history at the 2013 NCAA Men’s Final Four. They have put in hours upon hours of hard work. They are dependable, committed to their mission and to each other – playing because they couldn’t imagine ever not.
But these athletes aren’t from the Division I semifinalists Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State or Louisville.
Rather, they are an extraordinary group of Special Olympics athletes from the Atlanta area who have taken a different road to this year’s Final Four.
In hopes of providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Special Olympics athletes, the NCAA Division III staff donated 10 tickets to Special Olympics -Georgia. The regional Special Olympics office then designated deserving athletes based on achievement, work ethic and contributions to their local communities and Special Olympics programs.
Eight athletes – Michael Biron, Dion Thomas, Ronnie Britt, Patrice Lockhart, Wanda Jones, Brandon Tabor, Rodger Clark and DeWayne Jones – from the Kay Community Service Center in Fort Wayne, Ga., were rewarded with the chance to spend April 6-8 at the Georgia Dome, watching college basketball’s best compete in the NCAA’s marquee event.
While Special Olympics athletes come in all ages, these eight from the Kay Center are among the many adult-aged athletes who have gained the skills to live independently.
“The athletes are extremely excited, as they have never experienced anything like this,” said the Kay Center’s director, Todd Youngblood. “The big-time college game atmosphere and the fanfare surrounding the event will be absolutely amazing and life-changing for our athletes.”
Youngblood started the Kay Community Service Center in 1995. It is a program that works with individuals who have developmental disabilities, helping them reach their maximum level of independence. Through its curriculum, the center equips people with developmental disabilities with relevant job skills, allowing them to be part of the community through work.
From lawn services and cleaning crews to making side-shifters for forklifts and packing glass for local businesses, the center’s members don’t only receive job training, but they are also provided an all-inclusive learning environment where athletics is foundational to success.
The center has three rooms dedicated to fitness and exercise activities, as well as 12 Special Olympics Unified Sports® teams, where people with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team.
“We constantly seek opportunities for our athletes, as they deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. In coaching, we teach them to understand the sport, but in offering Special Olympics sports, our athletes are able to travel and get to see the world,” said Youngblood.
One Special Olympics athlete who will be attending the Final Four games has used the center’s program to his full advantage. Dion Thomas has excelled in his job, making side-shifters for forklifts, while also contributing to the local high school, serving as manager for the football team and the video coordinator for all of the boys and girls school basketball games. The program also gave him the tools to develop athletically as a power lifter. In October, Thomas competed in the International Powerlifting Championship in Puerto Rico, placing second with his personal best deadlift of 431 pounds.
“After losing his dad when he was young and his mom a few years ago, Dion’s hard work and dedication to everything he does has paid off,” said Youngblood.
Special Olympics athlete Patrice Lockhart is also gifted power lifter (she recently lifted 280 lbs.). Lockhart also bowls, works at the center every day and is a trainer for the high school girls basketball team.
“Through her active involvement in work and athletics, Patrice has matured and grown enough to live independently,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood himself is a distinguished member of the Special Olympics-Georgia community. A finalist for the 2009 Special Olympics-North America Coach of the Year, he is a volunteer coach and is on the area management team, all while participating on the Special Olympics Sports Council and dedicating time as a clinician in several sports. Additionally, he trains and competes with his athletes to help them make good decisions, such as taking ona new sport.
Humbled and appreciative of his athletes being selected to attend the Final Four, Youngblood underscored the real impact of this opportunity.
“By attending the NCAA tournament, our athletes will see how sport translates into life and that ‘hard work pays off,” he said. “Ultimately, seeing college basketball on its biggest stage will demonstrate where they can get in life if they work hard enough.”
Although these eight outstanding Special Olympics athletes might not be cutting down the nets, swimming in the confetti or hoisting the national championship trophy after this weekend, their experience will be a celebration nonetheless – a celebration of how sport changes lives.
And of how the NCAA Division III and Special Olympics partnership is using sport to do just that.
Since NCAA Division III and Special Olympics launched it partnership in August 2011, the division has integrated thousands of Special Olympics athletes into its 23 championships and has dedicated more than a quarter of a millions hours to Special Olympics.
The partnership aims to foster a mutual learning experience between the participating NCAA Division III student-athletes and the Special Olympics athletes and to provide a venue where both can share in their love of sport.