The Special Olympics may have saved Dustin Plunkett’s life.

Every year, the event at Cal State Long Beach offers its athletes free screenings for oral health, eye exams, hearing exams, foot health, diet and overall fitness. Plunkett, a longtime competitor in Special Olympics Southern California events, went for a health screening in 2004 and a volunteer dentist told him he urgently needed to be examined by a local dentist.

On that follow-up visit, he was diagnosed with gum cancer that would not have been treatable had it gone another month without discovery, Plunkett said.

Those health screenings “really change and save our athletes’ lives every time we get to go through it,” said Plunkett, who began working for the Special Olympics Southern California in 2015.

This year,  mental health screenings — where athletes can learn coping strategies and other tools from volunteers — are also being offered for the first time at the Summer Games, which kick off at Cal State Long Beach Saturday morning.

At the games, Plunkett and hundreds of local athletes will compete over two days for medals and ribbons in track and field, basketball, bocce, flag football, swimming and more.

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The free event held annually on the CSULB campus is the culmination of the spring training season. The Special Olympics also offers sports competitions year-round and will hold a Fall Games in mid-November.

Plunkett will be competing in bocce this weekend while he continues to recover from a fractured left hip he suffered while playing flag football in March 2023.

He’ll be in the Unified Sports division, which has players with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. The idea behind the program is that playing together forges a quick path to friendship and understanding.

Special Olympics Southern California CEO Kelly Pond said 120 Southern California schools currently offer Unified Sports through a partnership with her organization.

“It all leads to communities that are way more inclusive, leading to athletes being employed and just active members of the community overall,” she said.

In addition to preparing to compete at the Summer Games, Plunkett played a major role in the opening ceremony set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, working with two co-emcees on the script and helping to organize the parade of athletes.

A cauldron lighting will signify the official start of the event, capping a two-week, 1,100-mile torch run where law enforcement escorted the flame across Southern California.

The Summer Games will also feature live music, a festival with interactive games and booths, a cheerleading demonstration Sunday morning and a featured artist: CSU Long Beach alumnus Max Grasso.

Grasso, a Special Olympics athlete since 2015, is an anime and digital artist who majored in studio art at the university. Attendees can purchase raffle tickets for his art at the Rafer’s Boutique and the Honored Guest Pavilion.

For more about Summer Games and for a full lineup of events, visit