Mary Ann Gonzalez filtered throughout the foster care system all of her life. Uprooted and relocated countless times, Gonzalez felt alone and lost. At age 8, she got involved with the Special Olympics. Immediately, her coaches and teammates supported her, encouraged her and helped her find footing. They quickly became family.
The sense of cohesiveness and spirit she found in Special Olympics allowed her to dream big and set goals for her professional and academic life. Years later, while attending college, Gonzalez began to struggle in her courses despite her confidence and sense of purpose. On the edge of her seat in the front row of her classrooms, she strained to grasp the lessons.
Knowing the Special Olympics program provides free health examinations through its Healthy Athletes program, Gonzalez went in for an evaluation. She learned that her hearing had degenerated over the years. She needed hearing aids. Once she received the devices, her classroom performance and comprehension improved instantly.
Forty-seven years after Gonzalez first stepped foot on a field and joined the Special Olympics family, she serves on the leadership council, has a full-time job and is graduating with a computer science degree from Lake-Sumter State College. She attributes her self-confidence and drive to the support she received from her coaches and her teammates — her adopted family.
Through Special Olympics, Gonzalez competed in several sports including basketball, golf, softball and volleyball. She went on to become a certified official, officiating for the Special Olympics at the 2003 World Games in Ireland and the 2007 games in China. She was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
All over the world, Special Olympics is changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. This global movement champions a world of inclusion and community, where every person is accepted and understood, regardless of ability or disability.
Sherry Wheelock, the CEO of Special Olympics Florida, reflects on the impact the program can have for people like her friend Gonzalez: “You see this type of situation often. This program, the coaches, the environment — it gives our athletes the confidence to build their skills so they know they can be better contributors to the community. It teaches them they can set goals, accomplish them and excel.”
Wheelock came on board as CEO in 2012. With a vision and focus on growth, quality, inclusion and sustainability, she sought to expand the program and opportunities for Florida athletes. Under Wheelock’s leadership, the enrollment grew from 21,000 athletes to 52,000 throughout the state. From bowling to basketball, equestrian competitions to tennis, Special Olympics Florida hosts more than 500 sporting events each year.
“We even have our own division now within the board of the High School Athletic Association,” Wheelock said. “This means our athletes get to perform in the same types of competitions, on the same timeline, as other high school athletes. They go to finals. They win trophies. They compete just like everyone else in their school.”
As the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with disabilities, Special Olympics has provided training, competitions and health services to more than 5 million athletes since 1968.
Understanding that athletes’ health comes first, Special Olympics Florida expanded its healthcare coverage and offerings and is now the world’s largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities. The Healthy Athletes program provides more than 11,000 exams annually. Psychological examinations, dental check-ups, eye screenings and physical therapy are all provided at no cost to the athlete.
“It’s been amazing to see how many medical professionals volunteer with us, then return to their private practices, universities or hospitals and implement change on how they interact with, communicate with and include this group of amazing individuals,” Wheelock said.
With more than 33,000 volunteers in Florida annually, the high level of engagement speaks to the program’s impact on individuals, families and communities. Wheelock acknowledges the importance of the medical professionals and coaches who get involved with Special Olympics.
“Volunteerism is at the heart of everything we do,” she said. “Our volunteers are the backbone that make this program work.”
Florida recently won the bid to host the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World. For one week in June, 5,500 athletes from the U.S., the Caribbean and Canada will challenge themselves and showcase their abilities right in the heart of Central Florida.
The 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, held in March in Abu Dhabi, drew athletes and spectators from around the world for competitions in track and field, volleyball, soccer and tennis. Two athletes from Seminole County represented Florida.
“The program really does change lives and opens doors,” Wheelock said. “It gives children and adults the opportunity to learn and grow.”
Professional tennis player and Sanford resident Brittany Tagliareni, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age, got her start at the Special Olympics. She has since competed in the INAS World Tennis Championships, hosted by the Netherlands-based International Federation for Athletes with Intellectual Impairments. She competed in the #OrlandoUnited Doubles Tennis Charity Open to help families of the Pulse nightclub tragedy. She has built a career advocating on behalf of athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“The program brings people together,” Wheelock said. “It does not discriminate. It simply builds confidence and teaches everyone that anything is possible.”