Dee Sturgeon has been doing this for a long time.
The Sioux City-based West Middle School teacher has been helping with the Iowa Special Olympics for 35-plus years, and one thing never seems to change: her love for coaching and teaching her Olympians.
The Iowa Special Olympics began on Thursday morning with bocce ball and bowling. It just so happens that these are the two events that Sturgeon’s teams have always done remarkably well in. Sturgeon says that for some of the participants, it’s easier to get involved in bocce and bowling because the practice times are not as rigorous as in other competitions.
“We play bocce ball all year round,” Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon originally began helping with the Special Olympics back in the 1980s when she started out as a volunteer.
When she became a coach soon after, she realized right away the impact that coaching in the event would have on her. It wasn’t much of a leap for Sturgeon to coach, after all. She was already a teacher helping special needs students at West Middle School, where she still is today.
“Most of these kids, I have them in a class too,” Sturgeon said. “It’s kind of cool to really challenge them.”
With some of the kids she coaches who are on the autism spectrum, Sturgeon says that the team events allow for students who wouldn’t necessarily be able to interact in groups to learn from participating in the games.
“We have to involve them,” Sturgeon said.
Two of her bocce ball competitors this summer are twin sisters Emma and Jaida Holmes, seventh graders at West Middle School. Emma competes in both single and team bocce events, while Jaida is a 50 meter sprinter and a team bocce player.
Emma loves the light practice time that bocce requires.
“I just throw a ball against a wall,” Emma said with a laugh.
Jaida’s work is more pressing.
“It’s all about how fast I can go, how long I can go,” Jaida said.
But more important than just throwing balls at a wall, Sturgeon uses the down time bocce has to create a team atmosphere. She feels that when everyone is on the same page, the fun really begins.
“We try to get them to not think as 'me,' but to think as 'we',” Sturgeon said.
Emma said that her favorite part is meeting new people, and Jaida said that the two years they’ve been participating have been “lots of fun.”
They were not, however, excited about the 4:45 a.m. bus that West Middle School and West High school took on Thursday morning to make it to Ames in time for their first competitions.
Sturgeon said that there would be 56 students competing for West this year.
One of Sturgeon’s greatest accomplishments hasn’t happened yet. West High has a unified bowling team that is heading to Seattle, Washington, for the USA Special Olympics (to be held July 1-6). The team is comprised of athletes Ann Newton, J.J. Reeg-Beckner, Ron Schmidt and Estrella Tejada, and the team will be representing the state of Iowa in the competition.
It is the first time that Sturgeon has sent a team or individuals to the USA Special Olympics in all of her years coaching the Games. Sturgeon said she is “extremely proud” of that group.
“This is the first team that has qualified for the national games,” Sturgeon said. “It’s a huge deal for everyone.”
Her bowling team isn’t the only one to have vast success in the Summer games, as Sturgeon is happy to point out. With Sturgeon coaching, nearly every athlete West Middle School and West High School bring to Ames winds up with at least a bronze medal in their possession before the Games are done.
Last year, 48 athletes came to Ames with Sturgeon. Every single one of them left with at least one medal to their name.
Thirty-five years later, with countless lives impacted, she’s not given much thought to slowing down.
“I want to keep going until I retire [from teaching], and then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Sturgeon said.