Special Olympians, athletes and ambassadors, build connections


Marcus Leggett Jr. had a busy Friday this past month: Head to Richmond to register for participation in a major sporting event; back to the Beach for his senior prom; back to Richmond for a few hours of sleep before competing in track and field.

Such is the life of a Special Olympics athlete.

“Yeah, it gets a little crazy,” said his father, Marcus Leggett Sr.  “But we love it.”

Marcus Leggett Jr. was one of several dozen athletes from Virginia Beach who were among 1,500 participants in the Special Olympics state games June 12-13.

The games concluded weekly practices and regular tournaments for summer events in softball, aquatics, track and field, tennis, bowling and Bocce.  

Others take place throughout the year, covering 23 sports from speed roller-skating to golf.  State games lead to national and international competitions.

Like Leggett, many athletes compete in multiple events and have very busy social lives.

“Social media has changed everything,” said Jim Stott, a coach and local council board member whose daughter, Gretchen, also competed in track and field at the state games.  

He said athletes “are texting and on Facebook – we’ll get a phone call about something and go to tell the kids, and they’re coming to tell us because they already know. They have a really great network.”

The state games are as much social as they are athletic, according to participants, bringing together friends from all over the area who might not have seen each other since the last games.  Closeness among athletes, volunteers and coaches is a cornerstone of Special Olympics. 

“We’re a community,” said David Sutton.  “We’re all friends here.”  Sutton, from Virginia Beach, plays softball for Area 2, which also includes Chesapeake, Norfolk and Portsmouth.  Sutton is a global messenger, a position he began training for last year. 

 “We educate people about special needs and Special Olympics,” he said.

Sutton has been participating with the organization for 16 years. “I’ve never experienced anything better.”

That theme was echoed often at the games.  Another was how attending one event can lead to many more; the joy and sense of belonging is what attracts people and keeps them coming back, said Kamala Lannetti, Area 2 coordinator.  

“The athletes are the best ambassadors,” she said.  “It’s part of the message, to show community.  Special Olympics shows the athletes what they can do, and opens up a dialog and teaches the community what people with special needs can do.”

Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, and an avid athlete.  It reached in Hampton Roads in 1975.  

As of 2013, there are more than 11,000 registered athletes in the state, according to the organization. Area 2 is the largest Southeast region and the second largest in Virginia, with almost 600 athletes.

While Special Olympics’ focus is on empowering individuals by teaching athletic activities, its philosophy is equally about erasing social barriers and building bridges of understanding between those with intellectual disability and their communities.

Attending one Special Olympics event can get the message through, participants said.  Despite temperatures that pushed well into the 90s and days that started early and ended late, crankiness was in short supply.  

“These athletes show us how to be happy,” Leggett said.  “You don’t see this anywhere else.  They may be upset for a few minutes if someone else beat them in a race, but five minutes later, they’re buddies again.  They support each other.  They empower each other.  We really are a family.” 

And as hectic as it can get, he added: “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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