Cayman Special Olympics team to play new sports

Cayman’s 54-member Special Olympic team will be the largest ever to attend the Special World Games this summer in Los Angeles, and will compete for the first time in both football and basketball.

The games on July 25 to Aug. 2 will also draw coverage for the first time from international sports TV network ESPN.

Local organizer Special Olympics Cayman Islands, a member of Special Olympics International, is seeking sponsors for the 14-day trip, which will cost $170,000. In addition to raising money from a range of corporate sources, this year’s fundraisers include the deputy governor’s DG5K walk-run in late April, which aims to donate as much as $20,000 to the effort.

Other efforts include a SOCI raffle at Friday and Saturday’s Legends Tennis tournament at Camana Bay, from 6 to 10 p.m. The athletes will gather under the organization’s tent, hoping to meet anyone interested in contributing.

Antoinette Johnson, the head of the SOCI delegation, declined to release the list of donating sponsors, promising to reveal a full roster in mid-April. However, she said the Flowers Sea Swim has signed up, making SOCI its “charity of choice” for this year’s race. Last year the June event raised $56,000.

Regular SOCI sponsors include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Maples & Calder, Ernst & Young, Red Sail Sports, Cayman National, Greenlight RE and Cayman 27. Previous World Games sponsors have included more than two dozen organizations, including the Eric Crutchley Memorial Annual Golf Tournament, Deutsche Bank, Digicel and Solomon Harris.

Ms. Johnson said the group is excited to be preparing for the games and looks forward to fielding two entirely new teams and a new contingent of nine mainstream athletes, dubbed “unified partners.” These partners train alongside the 28 Special Olympics athletes, five head coaches, 10 assistant coaches and two heads of delegation.

The unified partners, Ms. Johnson said, “are persons without intellectual disabilities who aren’t regularly involved with SOCI,” but who have been recruited to help bring the teams up to broadly competitive standards.

“They work, compete and play with the special athletes, joining them, and it helps them all understand each other. They are roughly the same age and the same abilities. They all train together, and our athletes get better.”

The unified partners augment SOCI’s regular schedule of local football, basketball and track competitions with other local schools and athletic associations.

She is reluctant to name either the Los Angeles-bound SOCI athletes or unified partners, not wishing to interfere in training programs or discourage preparation. The contingent has actually been selected, she said, and she promised to name them at the April 16 “100-Day Launch” ceremony.

For the SOCI World Games teams, she said, one partner will join the open-water aquatics team, three will join the five regular basketball players, three others will partner with the six regular seven-a-side football players and two more will accompany the bocce ball team, all participating as full members. The athletics team will face global competition on its own.

The Special Games are staged every two years, like the Olympic Games, alternating winter and summer meetings. The last Special Games were in wintertime South Korea, which Cayman did not attend. Athens, Greece, was the 2011 summertime venue.

Cayman’s 15-member delegation earned 11 medals in Athens – two gold, five silver and four bronze – while recording five fourth-place finishes, two fifth place and one sixth place. “All of them achieved personal bests,” Ms. Johnson said, “rising to the challenge of competition on the world stage.”

The Los Angeles meet will be the 24th World Games since the original Chicago gathering in 1968. The event was previously in LA in 1972. This will be Cayman’s seventh games – all in summertime.

Los Angeles organizers expect 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches, representing 177 countries, and supported by 30,000 volunteers and 50,000 spectators. Competitions will extend across 25 events at 20 venues around the LA area, making it the largest sports and humanitarian event since the city’s 1984 Olympic Games.

Honorary chairs of the games are U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Jerry Brown are honorary hosts.

Ms. Johnson said families are integral to the trip. Because this year’s games are in the U.S., she said, more Cayman residents may be able to take advantage of special family rates and programs.

She hopes to see special airfares, but already hotels and lounges have been designated, augmented by special “ambassadors” to help visitors navigate the teeming complexities of the city and athletic events, including travel on the SOCI shuttle bus.

The delegation will depart Cayman on July 21, arriving the same evening in Laguna Beach for three days of rest and orientation before traveling 53 miles to Los Angeles for the July 25 opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The delegation will stay on the University of California-Los Angeles and University of Southern California campuses.