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Tribune-Star Editorial: Anticipated weekend plenty important with Special Olympics underway

Being ready is good. Being reminded of the value of lasting relationships is good, too.

Those thoughts pertain to this weekend in Terre Haute. Community organizations and leaders prepared for it to be epically busy.

A distinct possibility loomed that a NCAA Baseball Tournament super-regional and the annual Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games would be unfolding simultaneously in Terre Haute. Locals wanted to avoid a repeat of 2023. Last year, Indiana State University administrators infamously turned down the rare opportunity for the nationally strong Sycamore baseball team to host a NCAA super-regional. ISU officials cited a lack of staff and lodging accommodations for incoming teams, because ISU would also be the site of the Special Olympics that same weekend.

Thus, the higher-seeded Sycamores played their super-regional series at the lower-seeded Texas Christian University Horned Frogs’ stadium in Fort Worth and lost two close games. That ended ISU’s season just shy of what would have been the program’s first College World Series berth in 37 years.

The Special Olympics provided the silver lining in that situation. The state Summer Games happened in Terre Haute, just as it has almost every year since 1970. Joy, smiles, encouragement and inspiration came with those activities, like always. Plus, TCU fans responded to the Sycamores’ predicament admirably by donating $80,000 to Special Olympics Indiana.

This year, ISU once again had a stellar baseball season, but came up short of a super-regional berth, losing to powerhouse home team Kentucky in the NCAA regional round. So, the demanding yet exciting overlap of a super-regional and the 2024 Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games did not occur this weekend.

But to be sure, the Special Olympics events are happening. Registration, early competitions and the festive opening ceremonies got the Games underway on Friday. It was a smooth start, said Jeff Mohler, the president and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana. “The only concern we have right now is the weather on Saturday,” Mohler said Friday afternoon. Occasional showers are in the forecast, but the Games go on.

The Special Olympics Indiana staff, coaches, veteran volunteers and especially the athletes know how to overcome obstacles. The organization’s mission is to use “the power of sport as a catalyst for social change, working to end discrimination and empower people with intellectual disabilities to reach their fullest potential on and off the playing field.”

Terre Haute gets to experience the results every summer. This year, nearly 2,300 athletes will compete in three days of events. A thousand family members and friends accompany them. About 1,500 volunteers will be assisting and escorting the athletes, and timing and scoring their efforts. The number of athletes has gradually risen since the onset of the pandemic, Mohler said Friday, and this year’s turnout is about 85% to 90% of pre-COVID levels.

Volunteers are still needed for this weekend. “At this point, somebody can just show up on site, and we’ll find a spot for them,” Mohler said of people wanting to volunteer. They can report on Saturday or Sunday to the bocce field on the northeast corner of Third and Chestnut streets, or the swimming pool in the Rose-Hulman Student Rec Center. No experience is necessary, Mohler emphasized.

It would have been great to have Coach Mitch Hannahs’ ISU Sycamore baseball team playing for a College World Series berth this weekend at Bob Warn Field, with the Special Olympics Summer Games going on nearby. Alas, only the latter is happening. Yet it is an important cornerstone of Terre Haute traditions. It involves local residents opening their hearts and community to special athletes who appreciate being recognized and cheered, rather than overlooked.

Special Olympics lets Terre Haute be its best.