- October 14, 2021
Dr. Phillips resident Alex Cooper, 31, has been involved in Special Olympics since she was 9 years old. Her first sport was swimming.
“I think Mom probably picked it for her because it was something she knew how to do,” mom Karen Cooper said. “It was a sport that I knew she could do. At 9, I didn’t know if it was something feasible, so we were doing an individual skill, and I knew she could swim.”
Alex Cooper — who has Down syndrome — has been involved in many different sports as part of Special Olympics over the years: swimming, basketball, track and field, bowling and, most recently, pickleball.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s my first time (trying) it.”
This year, Alex Cooper is registered to compete in the Special Olympics Pickleball Invitational, which will take place May 5 and 6 at the USTA National Campus, 10000 USTA Blvd., Orlando.
“It’s a hard sport,” Karen Cooper said. “Some of the sports she has done are not as physically active. And so, a lot of kids — or adults — with Down syndrome tend to have poor muscle tone, so sports where she can be more active are really good for her physically … like swimming and pickleball.”
The mother-daughter duo practice once a week as they have pickleball courts in their neighborhoods. Alex Cooper also practices every Wednesday with her Special Olympics coach at Veterans Memorial Park in Winter Garden for about an hour and 15 minutes.
“People there are wonderful, because pickleball is very hard to get a court and people are now very patient,” Karen Cooper said. “They are really good with our kids, even to a point where … we’ve had some people let our athletes play in with them, rotate in. So, they are playing with them, so it’s really neat. From a Winter Garden angle, it’s just nice that the community is really embracing our athletes.”
For her first pickleball invitational, Alex Cooper will be playing in the unified category — where people with and without intellectual disabilities are placed on the same team.
At the beginning — more than 20 years ago — Alex Cooper was simply an athlete involved in Special Olympics. Today, she is an advocate and a leader within the movement.
“I’m a health messenger,” she said.
“The Special Olympics has the competition part, and they also have a leadership part,” Karen Cooper said. “So, the leadership program is that Alex is a special health messenger, and she is helping spread the word around hygiene and advocating for yourself with doctors. Wearing sunscreen, I mean, some things that (may) be very simple and basic, but (her) advocating was when COVID-19 came around and people with Down syndrome were considered a high-risk category.
“So, it’s those kind of things, and really advocating for people with intellectual disabilities and getting them the care and whatever they need,” Karen Cooper said.
The impact Special Olympics has made in the Cooper household has been monumental, as Alex’s twin brother, Nick, has become involved and is now helping with all the logistics that make the events what they are — special for everyone who participates.
“There are so many special-needs people (who) don’t have friends,” Karen Cooper said. “It’s very difficult in this community because often parents are working and so it’s hard to find any place where your kids can go and be safe. Special Olympics is a place where they can be safe, they meet new friends. It’s really a community.”