After facing a global pandemic and adapting to COVID-19 restrictions for most of the season, the Scott County Special Olympics of Kentucky track and field team returned to competition at the 2021 State Summer Games.
Last year, Scott County held one track and field practice before the pandemic forced Special Olympics to cancel all practices and competitions.
Coach Katie Gabehart said the team was disappointed when everything shut down, but athletes were excited to be back this year.
“Everyone was excited to get back to practice,” Gabehart said.
Gabehart began her time with Special Olympics as a volunteer. As a teenager, her mother was the Madison County Special Olympics coach, leading Gabehart to volunteer with the team. She volunteered for several years at the State Summer Games with her husband as well.
When Gabehart’s two sons, who are autistic, turned nine, they began participating in the Scott County Special Olympics program. Gabehart said the former Scott County Special Olympics track and field coach approached her one day and asked her to coach the team since her son would no longer compete.
“One day, the coach said, ‘You’re here all the time, why don’t you coach?’” Gabehart said.
Along with her husband, Aaron, Gabehart became the track and field coach in 2018.
Before the pandemic, 17 athletes showed up to participate at the sole practice of the 2020 season. This year, Gabehart said 12-16 athletes competed, which is about average for the team. Despite the year hiatus, Gabehart noticed more interest from athletes in competing this season.
“We had some athletes that could not compete in area games so we had 12 athletes compete in the state games,” Gabehart said.
In order to participate in the State Summer Games, athletes must participate in their respective area track and field meet. Around 600 athletes competed in the State Summer Games this year, which is held at Eastern Kentucky University.
Upon returning to practice, teams had to follow the Special Olympics Return to Play guidelines. The guidelines required athletes, coaches and volunteers to wear masks, practice social distancing and use hand sanitizer at the start of practices.
As COVID-19 restrictions eased across the state, teams were able to participate in the State Summer Games without masks. Gabehart said it was fantastic to compete without masks as it posed some challenges for athletes during the area games and practices.
“It’s hard for the athletes to compete with masks on and it was hard to practice with masks on and be able to talk and hear,” Gabehart said.
An integral part of practices and competitions this season were volunteers. Gabehart said volunteers helped with COVID-19 guidelines and other portions of practice such as timing runners. Volunteers were especially helpful during the State Summer Games. With several events taking place simultaneously, volunteers help take athletes to the staging area for their event, take photos at the awards ceremony and cheer athletes on and take photos at the finish line.
“If we didn’t have volunteers, we couldn’t do it. We always need volunteers to help out,” said Gabehart.
Special Olympics allows volunteers to build relationships with athletes, but the benefits of the organization extend beyond those relationships.
“We want to make sure children and adults with special needs are welcome in a community,” Gabehart said. “Special Olympics not only brings together athletes, but it brings them together with volunteers. Some counties also have unified partners, who are typically developed individuals working along with someone with special needs.”
In addition to track and field, Scott County Special Olympics competes in bowling, softball and basketball.
If anyone is interested in volunteering or participating, visit the Scott County Special Olympics of Kentucky Facebook page for contact information.
“We’re always open to more athletes participating. We’re also always looking for volunteers,” said Gabehart. “We would love to have you.”
Abby Hooven can be reached at email@example.com.