MISSOULA — After missing the opportunity to compete against one another for over a year, the two Special Olympics teams in Missoula in the Diamondbacks and the Bears were back out officially competing for a few weeks throughout the spring.
This time, it was alongside a volunteer group from the University of Montana, who was working with the Special Olympics for the very first time.
As in-person Special Olympics events got underway again, graduate students at the university involved with physical therapy and other programs wanted to get involved with the community more, so they began helping athletes and coaches in the Special Olympics.
"Everyone here is so excited to be here," said Sarah Cool, a grad student in the physical therapy program. "They all have smiles, as much as I can see under a mask. Everyone just seems like they’re really excited to be here, they want to improve, they want to do well and they also just want to have fun. If they don’t do well it’s still fun to be here type of thing which is an amazing process to watch."
Cool is one of many physical therapy students working as a volunteer. She added that after running cross country and track and field during her undergrad, working alongside athletes competing again was a fun way to find common ground in the community.
It's the first semester the grad students have done this volunteer work, as they've partnered with the Special Olympics Montana club at UM to make it happen.
And the rewards are plenty.
"I think it’s developing those relationships is just an amazing process," Cool said. "One of the athletes tells me a history story every time I’m here and I learn something new every time, and then there’s other athletes that they’re just so excited to be here and to compete and to just talk that it’s just an amazing experience for me."
Golf, track and field, and bocce ball are all activities athletes have competed in for official scores.
Kevin Borg competes for the Missoula Diamondbacks in all three, and couldn't be happier to be back out competing.
"When we didn’t do this I gained weight and stuff like that and became very unhealthy again and since we’re doing this again I’m getting healthy again," Borg said. "Excited to get back into it, see my friends again and have fun."
Tami Young is the local program coordinator for the Missoula Bears, and she said the impact from the university students has been a "major help" over the last several weeks. The volunteer duties have ranged from doing timing on the track, to measuring marks, setting up bocce ball courts, cleaning up after the events are done, as well as getting to know the athletes they're working with and helping with whatever they may need.
At the end of the day, seeing everyone back out competing after such a long time away has been the highlight for everyone involved.
"The coolest thing is to watch the friendships that they’ve come back to," Young said about the athletes. "Because a lot of them haven’t been able to get out and they’ve been social distanced and so they don’t get to see each other, so they haven’t seen each other since COVID went on lockdown. And so now they’re really excited to see each other and a lot of them that aren’t even participating in bocce have stayed around to root their comrades on and just to visit and to be social."
"It’s wonderful because it’s like a big family, and you miss people after a while," Borg added.