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Special Olympics

By Sharon McIntire From June 15-22 next year, 5,500 very excited athletes, coaches and officials from all 50 states and the Caribbean will converge at Orlando, Florida for the 2022 Special Olympic Games.Hosted by ESPN Wide World of Sports and the WaltDisney World Theme Parks, these athletes will compete in 20 Olympic-style team and individual sports events at the ESPN Sports Complex, while staying at the Disney World Resorts.Continuing their passionate commitment to be “athlete-driven,” the Games Organizing Committee has added a new 2022 USA Games Athlete Input Council. This diverse group of Special Olympic athletes has been charged with the task of providing effective communication between athletes and the Local Organizing Committee (LOC).From across all 50 states only 22 leaders were chosen, and Carlsbad's James Munoz was one of them. “It's quite an honor,” James says. “They didn't just pick me out of a hat. They called and talked to me -interviewed me for quite a while.”Carolyn Olson was chosen as his mentor and will accompany him to Orlando. “One of the reasons he was nominated is because he knows about sports,” she says. “James doesn't miss much sports: sports news, ESPN, the Lakers... If you want to know something about a game that's happening, or just about sports in general, ask James because he's watched it and knows what's going on. That's one of the main reasons he was picked for this.``“I like watching sports and Special Olympics –that's my hobby –that's what I do, “James boasts. “Ilike all kinds of sports. I watch basketball, football -all of them. My favorite football team is the Cowboys, and I like Tom Brady. I always root for Tom Brady.”He doesn't just watch. “I've beenin SpecialOlympics for like 14 years now. I started back when I was in middle school and I've been doing it ever since. I like playing softball –that's my favorite sport.” At Special Olympics James competes in poly hockey, bocce, and softball. Inthe 2020 New Mexico Special Olympics he competed in poly hockey, and hopes to play again this summer if COVID doesn't interfere. It's also not his first trip to the National Games; in 2014 he was one of two players chosen to be on the New Mexico bocce team.It's obvious he would like to compete again, but as a memberof GAIC that's not allowed. “I won't compete this time,” he states regretfully. “If I got picked for it, we would be able to go to Florida. But we'll just be in meetings all the time we're there.” His face brightens as he adds, “But even though we're not competing, at least we'll have a hand in how the games –how everything –is coordinated. It's still a great honor.”Although not a member of the athletic team, James will still be a member of the New Mexico delegation, and therefore will travel with the team to the Games. “To me it's still a great honor –you're still participating –you have a hand in what's going to go on over there.”James described his new job. “What we got picked to do was this athlete input council -how we can make it better, likea good experience for everybody. We want to make it easier for the athletes, and we tell them what we think can make it better. So maybe they add or change the space where people can have a good time, like an athletes' lounge. Then everyone has a good time; they're able to hang out, have fun and all that.”As the Games' “Voice of the Athletes,” the 22-member UGAIC meets quarterly with Kyle James, their coordinating member of Special Olympic USA Games, to ensure things run smoothly in Orlando. James didn'thave the electronics necessary for these meetings, so the New Mexico Special Olympic staff sent him an iPad and an iPhone to enable him to receive emails and participate in Zoom meetings.What happens during these hour (or longer) quarterly Zoom meetings? “Like, they give us ideas for apps, like what we can use, and there's even an app where if someone gets lost and they don't know where they are, they can send out a signal and someone like a staff or someone will find them; they'll know where they are. So it's pretty cool. Some of us are capable of being on our own –we know where we are, we know what we're doing -but others aren't; they need someone with them, So that's pretty cool.“We want to see how we can make the experience better. Like recently we've talked about this mobile app to keep people organized.” Included in the app will be schedules of ceremonial and sporting events, volunteer commissioning, ticketing, transportation, merchandise shopping, and USA Games websites. “You can schedule your whole day,” he states.His coach is also enthusiastic about the new app. “Before, you'd have to get information and they'd bring it to your hotel room and tell you what time things are going to happen the next day,” she says. “But the new app is going to be wonderful. The only thing you need to learn is where to look on the app.”“It shows where your venues are,” James explains. “It shows what event you have to be at, what time it's at, who you're going to face. You can even say, like, “congratulations” toan athlete. You can find out what time the bus leaves. You can help the athlete, like you can schedule an appointment, like if you want to visit one of the sites, you can schedule an appointment so you don't have to wait in line, and if there's down time you can even go see what other events you can watch. It's basically like an organizer to plan out your day.”A 2011 graduate of Carlsbad High School, James already has organizational skills. He lives independently and, “I pay my own bills, take care of mygroceries, do my own laundry. I have a bike –I ride my bike. I have a three-wheel bike. I pretty much do things on my own.”But one thing COVID won't let him organize is sports. “I've missed playing sports,” he admits. “Through all these months there's nothing to do with all the COVID restrictions so, yeah, I've missed it.”“James is a good example of someone who is in good health,” Olson says. That's not always the case. Since all Special Olympicstraining competition on the local, state, and national level has ground to a halt with the pandemic, “We find that as they get older they do less things, just like us, and this COVID thing has been absolutely awful for them, just like it has been for us.”During COVID and quarantine, Special Olympics NM strives to keep athletes moving. “They've come up with virtual games where we do exercises and we do stuff individually,” James states. “Like, through all this time we have these work programs where we do these little exercises. We compete against ourselves –we try to do our absolute best -like jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups. It's not the same as working on team sports or whatever, but it's something.” At this time, athletes from around the state are competing in poly hockey skills as well as fitness training in the organization's Virtual Winter Sports.And Special Olympics plans to expand this emphasis on athletes' health. “When athletes will once again be able to train and compete in their sports,” Olson says, “fitness skills will be included in the area and state events."This is the first year the Games Athlete Input Council will offer its services to athletes, so James doesn't know what to expect while he's in Orlando. “We're going to be in meetings the whole time we're there, discussing hot topics, allof us, like problems that come up or whatever. I don't know what we're going to be doing on our down time, or how much down time we'll have.“I'm looking forward to seeing the sights, going to see the good venues. Hopefully I'll get to see the beach; I hear they have good beaches over there.“We'll probably get to do some of the things that the athletes that are competing won't be able to do. Whatever we do, it's still going to be good –it's going to be awesome.”His coach adds, “I think that since they're going to be a specialized group, they're going to be able to do a lot of those things that the athletes who are competing will be too busy to do. And they might put them to work, too. They may need people to help line up athletes for a certain event or help with setup.”Whatever he will be asked to do, James is obviously ready. He received a call from a team member the day before Worldwide Inclusion Day on March 3 asking him to explain what inclusion means to him. “I said that it's better to have everyoneinvolved to show their talent –what they can do –not disclude them,” he said reflectively. “It's more fun to have to include everybody –that's what inclusion is –to show their talent. People with disabilities that can be included –to show what they can do no matter what they have. That's what inclusion means.”We can see why Coach Olson states proudly, “We were tickled to death when he got chosen, we really were. We thought he'dbe the perfect candidate to represent New Mexico and to represent the 2022 Special Olympic Games.“Out of 50 states and numerous athletes they picked 22 people, and James is one of them. Like he said, it's quite an honor. James is going to go to representNew Mexico and Carlsbad. We're very proud of him.”

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