Three West Orange High School students recently qualified for the Special Olympics State Summer Games, which will take place May 20-22 at Walt Disney World.
Reese Bernhard, 17; Sam Lepow, 16; and Danielle Morson, 17, placed first in their respective sports at the Special Olympics Florida Area 6 Games April 2.
Bernhard placed first for the long jump and the 400-meter walk. Lepow will compete in the bocce category, and Morson qualified for running long jump and shot put.
“I am very competitive,” Bernhard said. “I love sports.”
For Bernhard, being a part of the team means hanging out with her best buddies and having fun.
West Orange High School art teacher Karol Young and special education teacher Karen Smith coach the kids once a week for two hours.
“I love getting to watch them grow,” Smith said. “I do my best to treat them like everybody else. I don’t treat them any differently than I would treat a kid in general education. They want to be treated like adults; they want to be treated as teenagers. I push them to be independent, and in return, I get them to open up with me.”
During the State Summer Games, all three athletes will be staying in individual hotel rooms without their parents for the first time. To prepare, Young and Smith are including independent living training in their weekly practices, to guide them through the night they will be staying at the hotel.
The kids are excited to compete at Disney. Lepow is mostly excited about meeting Mickey Mouse.
Usually for the track and field categories, Young is able to put together a ‘unified team,’ but this year, that was not the case.
A unified team is a team that comprises two athletes with intellectual disabilities and two partners. They work together as a team, so if the team is running a 4x4 race, the team would compete one Special Olympic athlete, one unified partner and so on.
According to Smith, Morson did not enjoy outside sports when she started doing track, but now, she’s thriving. When it comes to Bernhard, they are trying to get her to start doing some running next year, as she really loves the walking events.
For Young, who has worked with Special Olympics for about 15 years, one of the most rewarding parts of coaching Special Olympics is being with the athletes.
“I love their heart,” she said. “They put their all into it, and if they win, it’s great. If they don’t win, then it’s great, too.”
She gave an example of seeing a group of athletes at one of the meets who had just lost, and those athletes were calling other athletes to take a picture with them.
“They were all excited and jumping up and down,” Young said. “(To them), it really is about the social fun of doing it together.”
For Smith, the most rewarding things about seeing them compete at the State Summer Games will be seeing the kids’ faces when they get to Disney.
“I’ve heard Disney does a phenomenal opening and closing ceremony and there’s a dance for our kids,” she said.