The clock was winding down.
Both teams had left it all out on the floor. Nearly through two overtimes, the basketball game was still too close to call.
“Points were like 59-59, we were in double overtime, and it was so emotional,” Lauren Wernau said. “It was the best game I think I’ve ever seen -- professional, non-professional, high school, whatever.”
Which team won?
It didn’t matter.
The game was between two basketball teams at a Special Olympics tournament last winter. The opponent didn’t matter and neither did the final score.
“Special Olympics is all about just doing the best you can and trying to be brave in your attempt rather than, ‘we have to win, win, win,’” Wernau said.
Wernau, who is the Program Coordinator for The Arc of Story County, has volunteered and worked with Special Olympics of Iowa for three and a half years.
The Arc of Story County is a non-profit organization that “strives to enrich the lives of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities as they learn, work, play and grow within the community,” according to its mission statement.
That message is a relief in a sports world where every action by every athlete is scrutinized. Special Olympics provides an opportunity for the community to enjoy sports and camaraderie in a competitive, yet positive, environment.
In Special Olympics tournaments, winning is far from the only objective.
“I’ve definitely seen our athletes grow to have better friendships,” Wernau said. “Even when we’re playing other people as well, we want to encourage the other team and we want to help pick them up.”
This year, The Arc has 54 athletes competing in the Special Olympics Summer Games. Those 54 athletes make up a minuscule portion of the total amount of competitors this week, which is expected to be more than 2,600 athletes, per the Special Olympics of Iowa website.
While there are other Special Olympics tournaments and events throughout the entire year, Wernau stressed that this is by far the busiest time of the year.
The Arc's 54 athletes will be competing in cycling, track, swimming, soccer and bocce events this week.
Wernau has seen some changes in Special Olympics through her time with The Arc.
Wernau said she has seen much more involvement with Iowa State recently. Lots of students have joined The Arc and other groups in the last couple years as volunteer coaches.
“It’s wonderful to see the university get involved,” Wernau said. “Our athletes love Iowa State. They love meeting other athletes.”
Wernau said one of the most popular events each year is when The Arc’s athletes get to bowl with Iowa State student-athletes.
Winning is great, Wernau said, but it’s not the only thing that matters to these athletes.
“I think it’s great when we all win and we get to celebrate winning,” Wernau said. “But for me, the most exciting part is to see maybe somebody has fallen down and I see three of our athletes running to go help that person up.”
For three days, Ames and the Iowa State community can put winning aside and instead focus on supporting each other.
“At the end [of the basketball game] I saw all the athletes hug each other and say ‘good job, that was the best game ever’ and it was so emotional just to see that,” Wernau said. “Really, I think our athletes are some of the most caring people in the world. It’s really awesome to see them support each other, win or lose, because that’s what Special Olympics is about.”