Loudon’s Special Olympics team wins big at national games

Pictured are some members of the unified basketball team representing Team Tennessee after they received their fourth-place ribbon in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. Front row from left, they are: James Scott, Drew Duisen, Shawn Key and Jerry Bivins; back row, coach Sam Slusher, Matthew Sheppard, John Stroup, Ryan Smith, head coach Raymond Smith and Johnny Smith.

They didn’t get gold, but Loudon County Special Olympics athletes came home winners after competing for the first time in basketball in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.

The Tennessee unified basketball team, in which seven athletes from Loudon County represented “Team Tennessee,” placed fourth out of 13 teams in the United States at the 2014 Games, and several other Loudon countians won bronze and silver medals for track and field events.

The athletes aren’t taking breathers anytime soon. They were back at it again this weekend practicing flag football.

Robin Bowen, Area 22 director of Special Olympics, which makes up Loudon and Monroe counties, said the local chapter sent nine athletes — seven competing with Team Tennessee for basketball and two more competing in strictly track and field events — to the national games June 14-21 in New Jersey, and the feat couldn’t have been completed without love and support from the community, such as donors like The Good Neighbors Shoppe and Tellico Village Women’s Club.

The local team raised about $14,000 to send the athletes and two coaches to the national games.

“If it wasn’t for our community we wouldn’t have been able to go,” she said. “They were super in our response for fundraising.

“One night there was the opening ceremony which was very neat. ... Each state was introduced. It was kind of like the regular Olympics. Each state would march in holding their banner and everyone would recognize them. That was really cool,” Bowen said. “We had one athlete who said it brought tears to his eyes. There weren’t many dry eyes in the crowd between the parents, the coaches and the volunteers. It was amazing to see them all with their wheelchairs and their walkers and just parading in and everyone clapping and cheering for them.”

Treasured memories

Lenoir City High School student Oscar Artalejo said his favorite part of the trip was interacting and sharing special moments of victory with other athletes.

Artalejo received a bronze medal for the 400-meter relay, placed fourth in the 100-meter run, fifth place in 200-meter run and sixth place in the 400-meter run. Artalejo said he now has his medal and ribbons hanging on his wall.

“The moment it was happy, excited,” Artalejo said about receiving the awards. “But at the moment you were like, you were a little bit shocked just because you made it to, you competed with other states and you feel excited. That’s how I felt.

“It was great. I loved it. I enjoyed it,” he added.

“Going to the USA Games that was one of the neat parts to see that they let their guard down. They had more emotions I guess at the USA Games than you do on a normal day. Working with Special Olympics kids, a lot of them have been hurt in many ways, so they have a tough guard up, and they just don’t show emotions all the time,” Bowen said.

Athlete Jerry Bivins competed with the basketball team. “I loved it — visiting New Jersey and meeting a lot of new friends from all over the state,” he said. “I was real happy our director chose me to go. ... Like my director said no matter if you lose or win we’re all champions.”

For some, it was not only their first time out of the state but also their first airplane flight.

Basketball athlete Johnny Henderson enjoyed seeing monks on the dinner cruise and watching the baseball game, his wife, Mel, said, adding that she encourages everyone to experience the Special Olympics at least once.

“It just gives you cold chills,” Henderson said. “It was awesome. The flight, people waiting for them at the airport, holding up banners saying Team Tennessee and cheering for them. The whole trip was a great experience.”

Qualifying for the June trip at state competitions, the athletes had practiced regularly for the national games on top of fundraising for their trip.

Two athletes, Michelle Bowen and Artalejo, made bracelets to raise souvenir money for the group.

The Loudon County athletes placed well at the 2014 USA Games:

  • Team Tennessee basketball team, fourth place.
  • Artalejo, track, bronze medal for the 400-meter relay race, placed fourth in the 100-meter run, fifth place in 200-meter run and sixth place in the 400-meter run.
  • Marie Ramsey, track, silver medal for the running long jump, bronze in the 100-meter run and the 200-meter run and placed fourth in the 400-meter relay race.

Bowen and Sam Slusher, assistant basketball coach for Team Tennessee, said they hope athletes not only took home awards but fond memories and life lessons.

“It doesn’t matter win or lose,” Slusher said. “They just want to go somewhere and have a great time. It always comes down to having a good time.”

And even the volunteers learned a few valuable lessons, such as sportsmanship, Bowen said.

“They all want to win, but it’s OK if they don’t. They actually enjoy playing and the camaraderie among each other,” she said.

“The most awesome thing I think was just seeing it in their eyes. Look what we’ve accomplished. We made it to the national stage. That’s awesome,” Slusher said. “Yes, we got to take a dinner cruise, got to see the Statue of Liberty, which I’m not taking anything away from it ... but just seeing the excitement in their eyes did it for me.”