County Special Olympians return to Games for first time since ’19

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HANCOCK COUNTY — It was nice to win and take home awards, but reuniting with old friends gave everyone a gold-medal feeling.

For the first time since 2019, due to the pandemic, Special Olympics of Hancock County met with other counties from across the state in Terre Haute for the Special Olympics Summer State Games.

The Hancock County contingent participated in bowling, volleyball and swimming June 17-19 at Indiana State University. They were able to compete some last year in small groups, but this was the first time in three years the event was held with full ceremonies and celebrations.

Hancock County had 45 athletes at ISU, including 20 bowlers, 15 swimmers and 10 volleyball players.

Swimmers earned 19 medals, including five gold. Bowlers picked up 10 medals, grabbing two gold. The volleyball team picked up fourth-place ribbons.

The State Games are much more than the prize at the end of each game or race. It was a chance to get back together with friends.

“Jenny enjoyed the social part the most,” Mary Donninger, mother of 16-year old swimmer Jenny Donninger, a county gold medalist, said. “Being able to swim with her friends at practice, making new friends at Summer Games and, of course, the dance was a great time.”

It’s been a long road back.

“(The pandemic) was really tough for our athletes. They didn’t completely understand it,” Michelle Wagner, Social Media and Fundraising Chair of Special Olympics of Hancock County said. “Here we were doing our normal life then everything shuts down. They can’t get together with their friends. They can’t participate in bowling or volleyball or whatever sport they were doing. This is what they look forward to. They like to get together and be with their friends and participate. It was really difficult.”

Wagner added, “They would reach out by e-mail, ‘When are we going to start bowling again?’ We didn’t know either. We had to follow the state guidelines. The state put together a stay-at-home type activity to do, but I don’t think a lot of our athletes did it. The aspect they were missing was getting together and participating with their friends and being with their coaches and volunteers they are used to.”

The event in Terre Haute included an opening ceremony where athletes march in county by county. They also have social events, including a dance, where the athletes reunite with old friends, as well as make new ones. There was, of course, the competition, too.

“I also had a lot of fun at the dance,” 13-year old Lizzie Chaffee, an eighth-grader at New Palestine Junior High School, said. “This is the first time I felt comfortable dancing because I use a wheelchair. I also love that I made friends on the team with two other girls. We are the three amigos. I was really excited because one of my other teammates and I got the same medals and ribbons.”

Lizzie earned a silver medal in the 25-meter freestyle and bronze in the 25 backstroke.

“It is really nice that I am not left out because there are lots of other people like me at the Special Olympics,” Lizzie added. “At the Special Olympics, I like that I can race against others and have a chance of winning.”

Lizzie’s mother, Angie Chaffee is the team’s swimming coach. She has two children on the team, including her 16-year old son, Hunter Chaffee, who also competes on the New Palestine High School swimming team.

“My high school teammates helped me get better so I could win gold,” Hunter said. “I wanted them to be proud of me.”

Hunter picked up a gold medal in the 25 butterfly and silver medal in the 100 freestyle.

“They were just over-the-moon happy to be back,” coach Chaffee said of the group’s return to Terre Haute. “For the swim team, not a lot of them had been there before. Many of the other athletes had. They missed it so much. This is their outlet, their social. It’s an entire weekend of being together and doing things together.”

“Some of them live on opposite sides of the county and some live in group homes that don’t have access to go hang out. Practices and meets are their time to get together. It’s good to see them all let their hair down a little bit.”

As the athletes celebrated each other, Wagner said they, as a group, would like to celebrate those that helped make this and future events happen for the county athletes.

“I’d like to thank Hancock County for their consistent support of us,” Wagner added. “We have many people and many businesses throughout Hancock County that support our athletes. Without their support we couldn’t do what we’re doing.”

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