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Athletes compete in Special Olympics Minnesota Summer Games

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Minnesota Special Olympics
Fred Washington is captain of the Rochester Ballers, a team from the Rochester Flyers Special Olympics Team. The Rochester Ballers participated in the Minnesota Special Olympics Saturday, June 22, 2019.
John Nguyen | MPR News

Fred Washington dribbled up and down the maple hardwood of the Schoenecker Arena at the University of St. Thomas with sweat dripping down his brow.

If you couldn't tell by the smile on his face, Washington and his team had just won gold medals in their half-court game.

"I just like to see everyone having a good time and having fun," Washington said humbly. "And have good sportsmanship."

Washington is one of more than 3,000 Minnesotan athletes with an intellectual disability competing at the highest level in the Special Olympics Minnesota Summer Games.

The Summer Games are one of the largest sports competitions that the organization holds in Minnesota, hosted this year at St. Thomas. Previously, the games were held in Stillwater and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

Minnesota Special Olympics
Minnesotan athletes play half court basketball in the Schoenecker Arena at the University of St. Thomas. This is the second year that Special Olympics Minnesota is at the venue.
John Nguyen | MPR News

The opening ceremonies began Friday with law enforcement traveling from Ontario and outstate Minnesota to St. Paul. They carried the "Flame of Hope" to O'Shaughnessy Stadium in honor of Special Olympics athletes in their area and around the globe. They were joined on campus by grand marshals, including former Twins player Joe Mauer and former Minnesota Vikings players John Randle and Ben Leber.

During the three days of the Summer Games, athletes participate in four Olympic-type sports -- basketball, swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

Another part of the event is Unified Sports, a program that allows people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.

"We're seeing that effect of inclusion spilling over out of the court and it's spilling over into the community," said Vice President of Program Michael Kane.

In addition to inclusive sports, Special Olympics Minnesota offers a major health program during the event.

Healthy Athletes provides free health screenings for people with intellectual disabilities. The program, started in 1998, covers disciplines such as podiatry, vision, nutrition, dental, audiology and physical therapy.

Minnesota Special Olympics
Special Olympics Minnesota offers free health screenings to people with intellectual disabilities through their Healthy Athletes program. Screenings include vision, hearing and physical therapy checks.
John Nguyen | MPR News

Dr. Jill Schultz is one of the clinical directors at Opening Eyes, an initiative for Special Olympics Minnesota to provide eye care and education. She said on Friday, 403 athletes were screened and 430 pairs of glasses were given out.

"That tells you how much of a need this really is," she said.

"The health and wellness piece is really critical because someone with an intellectual ability is 40 percent more likely to have a preventable chronic condition," said Dave Dorn, president and CEO of Special Olympics Minnesota. "Screening is key and the follow up is even bigger."

The organization continues to plan for future events, but for Washington, it always comes back to the game.

"Have fun, play together," he said. "Just know everyone's going to win or lose sometimes."