It’s been four long years since the Long Beach Beauties cheered on the athletes of the Special Olympics Southern California at the Summer Games.
But that hasn’t stopped the cheer team from doing what they love. From Dodger Stadium to Las Vegas, the team has kept up a busy performance schedule while they waited for its return, which kicked off on Saturday at Cal State Long Beach for the first time since 2019.
“The thing I love most about the Special Olympics is that our athletes are like the majority, and we typical-bodied people are the minority here,” Lynette Ingram, who founded the special needs cheer program five years ago, told the Long Beach Post.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic placed the annual competition on hold. But the enthusiasm to return was palpable on Saturday as more than 1,000 special needs athletes from San Diego to San Luis Obispo reunited on campus, which has hosted the Summer Games for more than 20 years. Over two days, athletes would compete for ribbons and medals in track and field, basketball, bocce, flag football and swimming.
Chris Dorsay, a left guard on the OC Tigers basketball team, said he’s been practicing for the big weekend since January. Aside from the pandemic-induced gap, he’s been competing in the Special Olympics for 23 years.
For Dorsay, the Summer Games are about “having fun and getting to meet new people,” he said.
Gavin Stewart, a bocce player on the Kangaroo Jacks team who has been competing for 12 years, echoed that sentiment and said his favorite aspect about the event is the opportunity to make new friends and meet all teams from all over the state.
“I think families are almost as thrilled as the athletes,” said Caren Roberson, a spokesperson for Special Olympics who has been involved with the organization since 1991. “They see what joy it brings to the athletes and their well being—it’s wonderful.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, effectively severing the ability to socialize in person, the need to pause Special Olympics activities was difficult for the athletes, who enjoy the physical activity and robust community the events offer year round, she said.
“They’re just happy to be here, happy to be competing and really happy to be with their friends,” Roberson said. “And that’s one of the things that they didn’t have as much during the pandemic, because without practice, without competitions, without activities—they didn’t have that.”
This year, the two-day event expanded its free health screenings as part of a growing initiative to emphasize physical and mental health.
Around the outdoor event, tents were set up for podiatry, vision, hearing, general fitness, blood pressure, dental care and more, Roberson said. For each screening an athlete completed, they were awarded prizes and raffle tickets to win bigger items to help incentivize them.
“In a lot of cases, they’re not getting regular screenings, so this is a way to get health screenings for free by people in the medical industry,” Roberson said. “And it’s great for the medical industry, because it educates them on how to work with people with intellectual disabilities.”
This year’s event also featured Unified Sports players for the first time, which places players with and without disabilities on the same team.
“We’ve all been waiting for this,” said Sammi Stewart, a Unified Sports bocce coach. “It’s a party, it’s sport, it’s fun. You get medals. It’s just inclusive and everybody is accepted. There’s no judgment—you get to be your true self.”
Larry Gholar has been volunteering with the Special Olympics since he was 15. He’s served in almost every role from mascot to sweeping floors to now, at 62, the competition manager for basketball.
“The truth of the matter is, I was forced by my father, who said our family really believed in giving back,” he laughed. “And so that first year when I was 15 I gave back and literally I was there 15 minutes and fell in love and realized over the years that they give far more to me than I’m able to give to them.”
The Summer Games continue in and around the Walter Pyramid on Sunday starting at 9 a.m. at Cal State Long Beach, 1250 North Bellflower Blvd., and admission is free.