The Special Olympics began as a dream of giving children and adults with disabilities the chance to prove that having a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to compete.
Throughout the years, the Special Olympics has grown not only in the United States, but also internationally. What started out with a mere handful of kids has now grown to more than 14,000 participants competing in more than 26 events.
For the past 25 years the Cedar Rapids Recreation team has grown from only a few athletes to over 500, making it the biggest group of participants at Special Olympics Iowa.
Their coach, Tom Wagner, has been a part of the program for the past 23 years. He has watched his team grow into what could be described as a powerhouse when they compete in the Special Olympics.
Wagner said that their soccer team hadn’t lost a match for roughly the past 15 years.
“We have approximately 22 people out for soccer at our park and [recreation program], so we made two teams up,” Wagner said. “We have a Division 1 and a Developmental Division. Some of these guys have been playing soccer for probably seven or eight years, and we practice about 10 weeks a year. The same nucleus of team members, each year, play for us.”
Tanner Rininger is one of their top players. Wagner said he is speedy and knows the game well.
“One of our previous coaches told me about Special Olympics, and I had a bunch of my friends in the Olympics so I joined; it’s competitive and I love the sport,” Rininger said. “It’s my fifth year, and I do every single sport every year. I hope to play for at least a few more years, if my body doesn’t break down.
“I love playing with these guys, got to keep them in line somehow.”
Some of the athletes don’t have visible disabilities. Rininger, for instance, has developmental lapses, but it doesn’t show on the field.
“If he wasn’t participating in the Special Olympics, there’s a chance he could end up in either jail or a mental institution,” Wagner said.
Cedar Rapids competes in more than just soccer at the Special Olympics. It has athletes in all of the sports because it is the single largest program in Iowa.
“Once they get into the program it’s about trips, awards, clothing, interacting with others, going out to eat and to concerts along with minor league baseball games and other sporting events,” Wagner said.
“You might start out doing bowling and then in three years you’re doing year-round sports,” he continued. “For instance, we’ll be going to the 2018 National Games in Seattle, Washington. We have to get some gold medals, work harder for Seattle. Some of our athletes go to sleep with the medals around their necks; it means a lot to them.”
The athletes spend a lot of time together, so the strength of their relationships is no surprise.
“It’s almost like a little family reunion after we take a couple months off between competitions,” Wagner said. “They get so excited when it comes to competing. Some of them were ready two weeks in advance to come to these Special Olympics.”
Wagner started off as a volunteer teaching Special Olympians how to ski in Dubuque, Iowa. He then attended the University of Iowa and got a degree in recreational therapy. He took on a job with the Cedar Rapids Recreation which consisted of 17 various sports and a couple hundred athletes.
“This weekend we brought about 156 athletes along with 42 volunteer coaches,” Wagner said. “I love doing this, and ever since I started volunteering with it and then taking it on as a full time job it’s been a passion of mine.”
All the athletes have a basic oath, which exemplifies the meaning of the Games:
“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”