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Special Olympics comes to ND

Nicole Toczauer | Sunday, April 17, 2011

The weekend’s rain paused long enough Sunday for Special Olympics ND to host its first soccer competition in a Blue versus Gold game at Alumni Field. Co-presidents and seniors Soeren Palumbo and Christopher Rhodenbaugh said the match was the culmination of a three-year process.

After Palumbo and Rhodenbaugh applied for club status in the fall of 2008 and were denied club status, their goal of creating a Special Olympics club at Notre Dame was finally achieved last August.

“It’s one of the first official university Special Olympics clubs in the United States,” Rhodenbaugh said.

The match demonstrated the cumulative effort of Palumbo, Rhodenbaugh and Jenna Newcomb, who graduated before the club became official. Bringing together University students and Special Olympics athletes, Rhodenbaugh said the game showed how Special Olympics grew on campus.

“It hit off unbelievably,” he said. “Once we recruited people they got their friends to come to the meetings. We’ve maintained our volunteers and hope there will be more.”

Rhodenbaugh said Sunday’s game was one of the first events in the United States to include college students and Special Olympics athletes on the same team. Remarkably, 13 of the 14 athletes on the teams were new recruits, he said.

“They’ve never participated in Special Olympics before,” he said. “That’s what we want to do — reach new people in our community.”

The effort and time the club members put into Sunday’s game and every month leading up to it brought hope, Palumbo said. Inspired by his younger sister Olivia Palumbo, Palumbo said he speaks from personal experience.

“As someone with a sibling with an intellectual disability, it’s a comfort that there are this many people who want to make the world a better place, to make sport and even fun more inclusive,” he said. “It just gives me a lot of hope.”

Palumbo added that on a global scale, Notre Dame’s Special Olympics event verified the effect young people can have on a community.

“The game showed the energy young people can infuse, and it demonstrated that Special Olympics is interested in empowering them to be leaders of today,” Palumbo said. “It’s not made in an office. It was inspired and planned by college students.”

Tim Shriver, co-founder of the Special Olympic College Outreach Program and grandson of Special Olympic founder Eunice Shriver, presented the award to the Blue team on the field early Sunday afternoon.

“This is the long-awaited start of a program at Notre Dame. Three years ago the Special Olympic College Outreach Program encouraged the creation of clubs like this,” Shriver said. “This is hopefully the first of many competitions.”

Shriver said this event stressed an inclusive community many Special Olympics athletes lack due to a societal norm of exclusion towards those with disabilities. This inclusion, acceptance and respect, he said, caused those differences to disappear.

“It’s a chance to escape the overwhelming stigma they experience so heavily in everyday life,” Shriver said. “For everyone who gets involved, there’s one more person who changes their attitude.”

Beyond Sunday’s event, Palumbo would like to develop intercollegiate athletic events between teams composed of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.

“We’d like to see Notre Dame play Purdue or Northwestern,” he said. “On a grander scale, we’d like to see college students and Special Olympics athletes be engaged equally and recognized as teammates. We’d love the rivalries of UCLA and USC, of Harvard and Yale, and the fervor that goes with those [to] materialize.”

But the ultimate goal, Rodenbaugh said, is to have people advocate the spirit of inclusion in everyday life. Something about sports and its process of learning encourages friendship and inspires others.

“There’s the fraternity that comes out of it, as with any team,” Palumbo said. “Sports strips away those barriers we use to keep each other apart. That experience is a self-affirming one and gives anyone confidence in Notre Dame, college students and the human race in general.”