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Special Olympics: 'An awesome weekend'

The softball portion of the 2012 Special Olympics Fall Games took place at Bielenberg Sports Complex from Aug. 17 through 19.1 / 2
The bocce portion of the 2012 Special Olympics Fall Games took place at East Ridge High School on Aug. 18 and 19.2 / 2

Athletes from all over the state overcame obstacles and put some common misconceptions to rest when the Special Olympics Minnesota Fall Games took over south Washington County this past weekend.

The softball portion of the 2012 Special Olympics Fall Games took place at Bielenberg Sports Complex and the bocce event was held at East Ridge High School from Aug. 17 through 19. Bocce and softball ran Saturday and Sunday, with additional softball games taking place on Friday night under the lights. In addition, East Ridge High School hosted the celebration ceremonies, dinner and dance after the Games.

Mark Anderson, the Competition and Training Manager for Special Olympics Minnesota, said the Games gave spectators a chance to see what people with cognitive and physical challenges are truly capable of.

"I look at it like any sports tournament you see at any level," said Anderson, who is in his second year with Special Olympics Minnesota. "Our athletes practice and train just like any other team for any other sport for their state competition. It's so cool when you see a state competition take place like you would for any other sport. Our athletes are so excited and enthusiastic. The sportsmanship is better than almost any other tournament I've ever worked, officiated or volunteered for. It's really cool to see our athletes competing like that."

Special Olympics Minnesota serves over 7,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, providing them with year-round sports training and competition opportunities. In all, more than 2.5 million athletes from nearly 200 countries around the world benefit from participation in Special Olympics.

"Even if teams may not be competitive, there's a social factor where our athletes get to see friends they maybe only see three times a year at our different competitions," Anderson said. "There's really a wide variety of interest levels with our competitions, but it is something that people work hard at and train hard for. They get pretty amped up for the state tournament."

Anderson said the most common misconceptions people have about the Special Olympics is that it's only track and field, it's held once a year and that it's mainly for kids. But, he said none of those things are true.

The Special Olympics holds numerous events throughout the year, including the Spring Games, the Summer Games and the Fall Games. There are 18 sports available and over 70 percent of the athletes are over 18 years old.

In addition to softball and bocce, other events in the Fall Games included equestrian, which was held at the Northwest Saddle Club in North Branch, and golf, which took place at Oak Marsh Golf Club in Oakdale.

Athletes may enter events in multiple sports based on the schedule of events and the coaches' judgment of the athlete's ability.

This was the second straight year the Fall Games were held at Bielenberg and East Ridge.

"It's an awesome facility for us," Anderson said. "It's just fantastic. With the amount of space they have, gives us room to grow in each of those sports that we have. It was just an awesome weekend. Weather-wise it doesn't get any better than that. The fact we had a weekend like this was just great."

Bielenberg and East Ridge were able to provide seven different fields for softball, and played host to roughly 50 softball teams, as well as 30 pitches for bocce.

"We had numerous comments on the facilities - how great it was and how welcoming the people were," Anderson said. "They're extremely excited about that facility and always ask if we're going to be back there again. Our hope is that we're back in Woodbury for the 2013 Fall Games."

See additional photos in the Aug. 22 issue of the Bulletin