Sports have a way of putting a smile on the faces of people with special needs while developing motor skills they wouldn't otherwise form.

"This goes beyond Special Olympics in providing skills and helping with developmental abilities," said Jill Olsen, the U.S. Special Olympics bocce coach, as she spoke about how she has seen the strategy and skills translate to her athletes' lives outside of the sport she coaches.

Last week, more than 300 Special Olympics athletes from around the country participated in a training camp in Newark, Del. They're getting ready for the Special Olympics World Games, which will take place in March in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The United States will send athletes in 16 of the 24 sports, in which 170 countries will be represented by more than 7,000 athletes. The Special Olympics World Games take place every two years, alternating between summer and winter sports.

The athletes primarily trained on the campus of the University of Delaware, with those in cycling, golf, triathlon, bowling, equestrian, sailing, and gymnastics venturing off campus to train at specialized facilities in the area.

Across the 16 sports in which the U.S. will participate, there will be traditional teams and unified teams. Traditional teams comprise athletes with intellectual disabilities, and unified teams have athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.

Pentathlete Jimmy Kuang, of Yonkers, N.Y., trains for the long jump during track practice for the Special Olympics USA national team.
LESLIE BARBARO
Pentathlete Jimmy Kuang, of Yonkers, N.Y., trains for the long jump during track practice for the Special Olympics USA national team.

Jake Harkey, of Boone, N.C., a cycling coach, is a police officer but found his way to Special Olympics cycling through a special-needs club to which his wife brought him. Since he started with Special Olympics 12 years ago, Harkey has coached cycling, skiing, tennis, basketball, soccer, track and many more sports.

Harkey started out as a mountain biker and has found during his time as a cycling coach that mountain-bike techniques have translated to cycling. Over his time as a coach, he has been impressed with how receptive his athletes have been and is never surprised by what they can do.

"I can never underestimate people. They can do far more than I ever believe anyone can do. They can do so much. They can do anything they put their mind to," Olsen said as he smiled at Scott, one of his athletes. "They are the most positive people you will ever meet in your life."

Dayton Larson, a unified soccer player from Spokane, Wash., began playing the sport his sophomore year of high school. For the last two years, he has found soccer to be an outlet and a way for him to make new friends while learning new skills.

Courtney Thompson, a traditional-team basketball player from San Antonio, joined the basketball team about eight years ago when she was a freshman in high school. She concedes she wasn't good at the sport at first, but the more she played, the better she got.

"I do enjoy being demanding, and I enjoy making new friends," Thompson said.

Maya Rivera (second from left), of St. Paul, Minn., practices bocce with fellow Special Olympics USA teammates.
LESLIE BARBARO
Maya Rivera (second from left), of St. Paul, Minn., practices bocce with fellow Special Olympics USA teammates.

Olsen, of Yamhill County, Ore., was approached by Special Olympics through a coworker who has an autistic daughter. She climbed the ladder of bocce from unified-partner athlete to coach to program director for all eight Special Olympics sports in her county. She has had to learn patience over her time with Special Olympics. Whether that is through communicating with teammates or showing her athletes techniques and strategies, she has found the experience rewarding.

"I love working with the athletes. I can't express the joy it brings," Olsen said. "The athletes adore you. They love that you are willing to spend time with them and work with them and you're giving your time to be there and you want to be there."