Special Olympians enjoy sports and camaraderie at 11th annual event at Nike.

THE TIMES: MANDY FEDER-SAWYER - Tula Haupt, 9, participates in the 11th annual Special Olympics Youth Games at Nike. Sarah Reinertsen is an inspiration.

She's a Paralympic athlete, the first female amputee triathlete to compete in the Ironman Kona.

"I was born with one leg and I struggled to find opportunities to play," Reinertsen said Saturday at the 11th annual Youth Games for Special Olympics, held at the Nike Inc. world campus in Beaverton. "I grew up on Long Island in New York and I was often excluded from sports. They wouldn't let me play with the able-bodied kids. I never want another kid to be on the sidelines."

Reinertsen kicked off the opening ceremonies along with Portland Timbers player Zarek Valentin and Patrick "Blake" Leeper — an eight-time Paralympic track and field international medalist.

Joining them on stage to read the Special Olympics athletes' oath was Grace Almgren, who began participating in the games when she was 8. She is now a 17 and a proud high school senior. Reinertsen is Grace's hero.

Karis Almgren, Grace's mother, said, "We do this every year and she rocks it. She has blossomed." 

Grace was first introduced to sports during the 2008 Youth Games. She has since moved on to play on a basketball team for her school.

Karis said her daughter isn't naturally drawn to athletics, but through support from Special Olympics Oregon programs, Grace has learned to love sports, which has, in turn, built her confidence.

Since 2007, more than 5,000 young people have participated in the Special Olympics Oregon Youth Games at Nike World Headquarters.

For Nicole Williams, 9, of Beaverton, this was her third year participating. Her mother Nancy said Nicole loves sports, both team and individual.

"She loves the camaraderie," Nancy said. "She cheers everybody on."

Nicole's sister, Angelina, 17, and father Rick were also there to cheer Nicole on. Rick said Nicole has become more open since she began to participate and she enjoys seeing friends and being social.

Nicole's best friend, Tula Haupt, 9, from the Tanasbourne area, was also in attendance. It was her second year at the event.

Tula's mother Andrea said the Special Olympics has given their family a feeling they belong and they are not alone. She said the Youth Games being free is huge for them.

"We have so many medical expenses," she said.

Andrea Haupt said the social connection is a reprieve from the anxiety Tula often feels at school: "It's her peer-to-peer connection opportunity with hundreds of children."

The one-day event focuses on teaching those with intellectual disabilities the basics of a sport. At the same time, participants and their families have the opportunity to sample Special Olympics Oregon's programs while interacting with local and professional athletes. 

The Youth Games are co-produced by Nike and Special Olympics Oregon and funded by Nike. The event is free to registrants. Participation is limited to youth ages 6 to 18 with intellectual disabilities.

Jorge Casimiro, Nike's vice president of global community impact, said the Youth Games is the company's number-one volunteer event.

"In the first two hours after we announced the opportunity all 400 volunteer spots were filled," Casimiro said.

Jean Hansen, vice president of school partnerships, was inspired to work with Special Olympics from the time she was in high school and she coached her developmentally disabled sister.

Special Olympics board member Kerry Tymchuk first attended an event about a decade ago and now, he said, he's hooked.

"I can't help but be involved," Tymchuk said. "No one's going to make fun of the kids here."

As his own son was growing up, Tymchuk brought him to all the events to watch and help. His son, now in college, in turn became a volunteer. Tymchuk said the experience taught his own child to be kind, inclusive and empathetic. 

During the Youth Games, Nike hosted a Unified Champion Schools exhibition soccer game where youth with intellectual disabilities play on the same field as youth without intellectual disabilities.

Since the Youth Games started 11 years ago, more than 3,800 Nike volunteers have given a total of 33,000 hours of their time.

"Nike continues to be a phenomenal partner for us and we are so grateful to them for their ongoing support and dedication to inspiring greatness in our athletes for generations to come," Margie Hunt, chief executive officer of Special Olympics Oregon, said.

"We're committed to helping kids reach their greatest potential and creating more equal playing fields for all," said Casimiro.

By Mandy Feder-Sawyer
Reporter, Beaverton Valley Times
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