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Bonding over basketball: Special Olympics, DWU basketball partnership a slam dunk

Running first up the court and then back down, the athletes of the Mitchell Area Special Olympics basketball team worked hard Sunday to impress their coaches.

Athlete Tiffany Vobr, center, dribbles down the court during a Special Olympics practice on Sunday at Glenda and Fritz Corrigan Fieldhouse and Athletic Institute in Mitchell. Partnering with Dakota Wesleyan University, the Special Olympics basketball team practice every Sunday at the facility. (Sarah Barclay / Republic)
Athlete Tiffany Vobr, center, dribbles down the court during a Special Olympics practice on Sunday at Glenda and Fritz Corrigan Fieldhouse and Athletic Institute in Mitchell. Partnering with Dakota Wesleyan University, the Special Olympics basketball team practice every Sunday at the facility. (Sarah Barclay / Republic)

Running first up the court and then back down, the athletes of the Mitchell Area Special Olympics basketball team worked hard Sunday to impress their coaches.

With no complaints, the Special Olympics athletes ran drill after drill, passing and dribbling the basketball as shouts of encouragement by the Dakota Wesleyan University's women's basketball team followed their every move.

The team wasn't there asking the athletes to vacate the court in preparation for the NAIA Division II national tournament. Instead, the women's team is serving as this year's coaches for the Special Olympics team, a new experiment by both organizations.

And so far, so good.

"We couldn't ask for a better partner," said Don Petersen, who serves as a member on the Mitchell Area Special Olympics Committee. "We didn't know what this would be like and it's exceeded our expectations."

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Every Sunday since the beginning of January, members of the Wesleyan girl's basketball team practiced with Mitchell Area Special Olympics athletes, gearing up for the Special Olympics state basketball tournament on March 25-26. The tournament will be held in Mitchell for the first time in at least eight years. And approximately 650 athletes are expected to make an appearance, with 14 more teams in this state tournament than last year.

The night before, the group will host its annual Polar Plunge, which serves as the committee's largest fundraiser for the year. Registration for the event will begin at 6 p.m. March 24 at the Avera Sports and Wellness Complex facility at Dakota Wesleyan University, with the plunge beginning at 7 p.m.

Last year, a total of $28,000 was raised, and with the help of Dakota Wesleyan, the Mitchell Area Special Olympics Committee hopes to beat it this year. Both the head women's basketball coach Jason Christensen and men's head coach Matt Wilber will be jumping. All of the funds are used for equipment, hotels, transportation and food.

Forming a bond

When Christensen saw Special Olympics athletes helping out at a national tournament last year alongside players, he knew he had to develop a similar partnership in Mitchell.

Immediately upon returning from the tournament, Christensen brought up the idea of getting the girls' team involved with Special Olympics to his assistants. They were immediately on board.

From there, it "trickled down," Christensen said.

"The cool thing about it with our kids, we didn't make them come, they wanted to come help. And it's not because of the free pizza either," Christensen said this past Sunday, shortly after practice ended and all athletes enjoyed a slice of pizza for their hard work. "It's just gratifying."

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It's just as gratifying for the Special Olympics committee members, Petersen said, as the athletes have a lot higher energy and become more enthused with the help of the DWU women, sometimes doing more drills and exercises for their new coaches than before.

It's a partnership like none other. Christensen said while he can see how it is directly impacting the Special Olympics athletes, he can see how it's affecting his team as well - in the best way.

A few of his players use the experience in the classroom, describing to fellow classmates about the partnership and the lessons learned from the experience they enjoy so much.

"It's about giving back. Here at Dakota Wesleyan, that's what we like to do and that's kind of the things we need to do," Christensen said. "Our kids are all about giving back and, like I said, I didn't have to twist their arm or anything."

Expanding the idea

Special Olympics offers it's athletes a variety of sports to choose from bowling to softball.

But once basketball is over at the end of the month, the Mitchell area team will begin focusing on track and field. And they've already got some volunteer coaches lined up.

The next track and field season will receive some help from Derik Fossum, Dakota Wesleyan's head track and field coach.

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This was another idea developed between Christensen and the Special Olympics committee, looking within the university for more volunteers.

"It was an easy call," Christensen said. "That's kind of what we envisioned. Hopefully we can have our coaches step up with the program here."

Reaching out to the younger athletes

To be a part of most sports in the Mitchell Area Special Olympics, athletes need to be 8 years old or older.

For many of the committee members, they are eager to change this and form a new sport to reach out to younger athletes in the community. And so that's what they plan to do.

Starting in June, a new program will kick off called the Mitchell Area Special Olympics Young Athletes program where Special Olympics athletes - age 2 to 7 - will learn how to ride a strider bike.

This program will allow youth to improve both mental and physical skills, with the aid of therapists from Integrated Therapy Services and 4-H junior leaders.

With the partnership formed with Dakota Wesleyan Athletics, and the new program for younger athletes beginning this summer, committee president Mary Hieb is hoping more people within the Mitchell area will become involved.
"We really want to get more progressive within the community and with our athletes just because there's a lot of kids out there we're missing and we're struggling as to why," Hieb said. "We're struggling to get the word out."

Awareness is one issue, but Hieb said some people believe their child can't compete alongside the rest. Hieb said she even thought that at one point with her child.

But it's not about winning at all.

"They're there to do their best and have fun," Hieb said. "It's not always about winning."

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