Panthers win gold, show growth
By ANTHONY FLORES
Texas State University’s Jowers Center was the center of the basketball world Saturday for athletes competing in the 2020 Special Olympics.
Traveling almost two hours south to compete in the event, the Liberty Hill Panthers secured their fourth gold medal in a row. The team took first place in the 3-on-3 basketball competition.
But the victory on the court is only a small part of what this trip and these students are all about.
The Panthers were unbeaten, picking up their two victories against the Bastrop Silver Stars and Hutto Hippos.
“I thought that Hutto was a challenge, they were our challenge team, but we pulled through,” said Panther Cassidy Sandlin. “It felt good winning and playing basketball in a team effort.”
Aside from the glory of taking gold, the victory over the Silver Stars was a redemption win for Walker Raney, who never forgot their first-year loss to the Bastrop team.
“Winning was glorious,” said Raney. “Back in the day, we lost against the Silver Stars, but we did have a score to settle. We were able to prevail.”
The Special Olympics began in 1968, continuing to grow in size over the last 50 years, highlighting and giving a spotlight to individuals often overlooked and dismissed by society. The goal for the volunteers, parents, coaches, and officials involved in dissolving the lines of division and ushering in a wave of normalcy and inclusion.
Liberty Hill Elementary School educator Angela Meade, the mother of one of the athletes and coach of the team, said times have changed since they were in school. The veteran educator remembers a time when special needs students faced segregation from the rest of the school population.
“When I was in school you didn’t see kids, they were in a portable building out back,” she said. “You saw them maybe at a meal, maybe if they were walking to their class.”
Meade is at the forefront of normalizing and removing stigmas that Special Olympic athletes face, aiming to bring unification to the games by the following year.
“What we hope to do next year is unify,” said Meade. “Where you take two general education students and put them on a team with three Special Olympic athletes. That is my goal to do that next year because this is the community they live in, and these are their peers. That’s the big push nationally. It’s not the dark ages anymore.”
Watching the excitement flowing through each athlete as they put their heart into every movement, every dribble, and every shot is infectious for Meade, as feelings of pride and joy spread throughout the gyms as families cheered on in support.
“When you go, the way your heart just overflows is amazing,” said Meade. “The first time you go to a competition, you can’t help but smile because everywhere you look, it’s just joy.”
The belief that because this is Special Olympics means the level of the competition lacks any intensity and is a way to appease is wrong. Each contest is physical, competitive, and filled with passion as each team vies for the top spot. Just like in any other basketball competition, battles for every rebound involve heavy contact. During their game against the Hutto Hippos, one player for the Hippos took a nasty shot to the face, forcing him to leave the game.
“One of the things people don’t realize is that the Special Olympics as it is established is very competitive,” said Meade. “These kids work hard, and we work them hard. We have high expectations.”
Competition divides into different categories; younger athletes take part in individual or team skills, and older athletes take part in either 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 tournament. This year a lack of certified coaches led to the varsity team being the only ones to compete.
Going into Saturday’s competition, the Panthers had high expectations to meet, having won gold at the last three Special Olympics. In preparation to take its next gold medal, the team worked hard in the weeks leading up, holding their scrimmage with competitors the week prior.
Since their first year participating, the team has come a long way, at one time being entirely outmatched by opponents. It was the early blowouts that helped create the drive to strive for more.
“Our first year, we came in very novice and just happy to be there,” said Meade. “We were blown away and got torn up, and we realized ‘Oh no, we’re playing real ball,’”
While competition is the heavy focus of the games, the camaraderie formed between individuals involved rises above all else. The opportunity to meet and relate to others like themselves lets the athletes know they aren’t alone in the struggle.
“They form friendships in our broader community,” said Meade. “My kiddo knows the guys from Pflugerville, from Leander, and so when they see each other in public, it’s like seeing an ally.”
The encouragement to socialize and build a more in-depth community is one of the biggest focuses for Meade and the other parents and volunteers.
“We aren’t made to be islands; we’re not made to be in isolation,” she said. “It would be a lot easier to just stick with our group, but we push social boundaries, we learn how to win, lose, compete, and how to cheer for the next guy over.”
Before her son was diagnosed with autism, Meade had minimal experience with Special Olympics, volunteering from time-to-time during college. For her and many parents of special needs children, the chance to meet parents – just like for the students – removes the feeling of being alone in a sometimes overwhelming situation.
“As a parent, when I first did it, it was great to be able to say ‘Okay, she has a son with autism, too, we’re doing alright,’” she said. “When my son was diagnosed, he was one of the first kids in Liberty Hill in a mainstream setting.”
With leaps and bounds taken socially and a wealth of information obtained over the years, Meade is using her platform and her position to educate the next generation as well.
“Tolerance is an important word in society that we tend to tiptoe around,” she said. “Sometimes people think tolerance has a negative connotation, but having worked with this young age group the majority of my career – almost 20 years now – I teach kids you have to have tolerance because these people are members of your community. That goes for all in the human race.”
When the dust settles, and competition is over, what matters to the volunteers, coaches involved, and families on the sidelines is that their children are treated just like anyone else.
“It’s hard sometimes, it’s stormy, and it’s dark,” said Meade. “But that’s the beautiful thing about working with these kids. We’ve got those misconceptions, and when someone comes in and sees it, it’s beautiful. I think of a phrase I once heard, ‘It ain’t pretty, but it’s beautiful,’ and that’s my team.”