FITCHBURG — For a group of athletes, coaches and families, it’s not winning the medal that is most important. It’s inclusion, it’s community, it’s building self-confidence.
For years, athletes of all ages have practiced and trained, confident of a spot in their sport in the statewide Special Olympics Massachusetts. The only requirement for teams and individuals was to participate in qualifying games.
Now, the Massachusetts games are at capacity in four out of 20 sports. To make matters even tighter during the spring games, running tomorrow through Sunday, the pool at Harvard University is closed for renovations.
Special Olympics allocated places to swim teams based on the number of participants in the 2013 competition. Swimming coaches learned about the cap during a meeting in March.
The 51-member Fitchburg-based team, the Dolphins, were given 36 slots. Rather than leave teammates behind, the Dolphins decided not to go.
The team will be going after all, said Karin Thibaudeau, one of the founders of the team and head coach. Some members would not have been able to attend the games that weekend, leaving enough slots for those who could.
Thibaudeau and her mother started the team over 20 years ago for her sister Andrea, who is now 33. They practice in Winchendon weekly.
Andrea is still swimming on the team. “I love it. It’s one of my sports,” she said. She also plays basketball and softball.
Massachusetts is the only state that does not adhere to the Special Olympics national rules that place athletes in the games based on previous scores, said Mary Beth McMahon, president and CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts, during a town meeting held at the Arc of Opportunity in Fitchburg last night.
A decision to comply with the national rules has not been made, she said. The state group will collect feedback through the summer and make a decision in the fall.
“We are at capacity,” McMahon said. “We are going to build more competition across the state.”
Special Olympics will continue to grow. The current 12,000 Massachusetts participants range in age from 2 1/2 years old to 102. There are an increasing number of people who qualify, she said, there are 199,000 individuals in the state who could take part.
Reactions to the possibility of determining eligibility for the state games on scores were emotional.
“State games obviously are the finale of the season. To tell even one athlete they can’t go is heart-wrenching,” Karin Thibaudeau said as she cried. “There’s just no fair way to do it.”
Ashley Congram, 25, who said swimming is her favorite thing, recalled when she was scheduled to compete in Boston but ended up in the hospital with a seizure. “It’s the scariest thing,” she said wiping her eyes.
McMahon told her she would not be disqualified for something like that if it happened at future games.
Rick Clouthier has coached different sports for special athletes for over 30 years. He spoke about how much going to the state games means to the players.
“Every athlete I know and that I’ve coached, the goal is to go. It’s big,” he said.
Excluding athletes because of their scores goes against the mission of the Special Olympics, which is inclusion, said Susan Koehler, mother of an adult athlete.
“We work so hard to include our children who are excluded from so many things in daily life,” she said. “I really hope you look for solutions.”
She asked McMahon to include parents when looking for suggestions. “We live it every day,” she said.
As unanimously as speakers in Fitchburg spoke against determining eligibility for the state games by scores, speakers at other town meetings spoke in favor, McMahon said. Whatever decisions are made will not please everyone.