Making a comeback: Special Olympics holds first big, in-person event since 2019

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald From left, Christopher Liberato from the East Hawaii Red Waves and Michael Mitts from the Honokaa Hawks talk to each other after competing in the East Hawaii Special Olympics track meet at Saturdday at Waiakea High School. It was the first Special Olympics competition in Hawaii since prior to the pandemic in 2019.

  • Honokaa Hawks' Gilbert Acosta, left, and Isaiah De Luz compete in the 100 meter run during the East Hawaii Special Olympics track meet at Waiakea High School on Saturday. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Kaylee Nerveza from Hilo High smiles while receiving a second-place ribbon for the 100-meter run during the East Hawaii Special Olympics track meet Saturday at Waiakea High School.

Saturday morning was full of sweat and smiles as athletes competed in Hawaii’s first Special Olympics since 2019.

More than 60 athletes and 110 volunteers gathered at Waiakea High School to cheer on teammates and friends as they competed in track and field events.

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“We were worried about the rain, but the day really could not be any better,” said Heather Dansdill, Special Olympics East Hawaii director. “I think the athletes had a lot of fun and were so excited to see each other again.”

This was Special Olympics Hawaii’s first big, in-person event since the summer 2019, before the pandemic hit and pressed pause on all activities and gatherings.

Before the COVID-19 omicron variant made a huge surge in the state at the end of 2021, Special Olympics had planned to return for a full spring season.

“One of the biggest challenges has been finding a safe, easy way to come back. We were ready to start the spring season until omicron,” said Special Olympics Hawaii CEO Dan Epstein. “After waiting, waiting and waiting, the case counts came down, so we scrambled to make this happen.”

According to Epstein, Saturday’s East Hawaii Special Olympics garnered about 50% fewer participants than usual. Some organizations, schools and individuals were not yet prepared to come back.

“We got clearance to practice in late February, and they usually have more time to practice for spring games,” Dansdill said. “It’s awesome to have 60 athletes, which is smaller than usual, but still great considering what we all have gone through.”

Christopher Liberato is a member of the East Hawaii Red Waves and was excited to finally be able to compete again.

“It feels pretty good to be back,” Liberato said. “I missed Special Olympics, because I love competing, having fun, seeing friends and representing the Red Waves.”

Liberato has been on the Red Waves team since 2014, but has been competing in Special Olympics through most of his life. Without the competition, life became more mundane and isolated.

“It was hard to go so long without it, because I couldn’t do much,” Liberato said. “I missed seeing all my friends that live on all the islands.”

While he still practiced his favorite sport of basketball with his dog, Lily Lou, Liberato was missing the life long friendships he has made with athletes, coordinators and volunteers.

Fostering those connections is one of the most important parts of Special Olympics, because it brings people of all ages and backgrounds together for days of fun and competition, according to Epstein.

“That’s the thing with Special Olympics — we’re actively working against the social isolation of our athletes, and that is what has made the pandemic so hard,” Epstein said. “The pandemic was forcing a lot of social isolation, and while many of us have other outlets for social interaction, many of our athletes aren’t as fortunate. It was critical for us to get back to some normalcy.”

Coach Tricia Ugalde with the East Hawaii Explosions was “stoked” to be back on the track with her athletes.

“It’s so exciting to be back, and I’m happy to see them running and smiling again,” Ugalde said. “Taking a knee for so long was difficult, but it was great getting back to practice again.”

After the track meet, the East Hawaii Explosions will be preparing for the state games, which will take place on Oahu on Saturday, June 18, and Sunday, June 19, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hannah Conley coaches the Honokaa Hawks, who had a big showing at the track meet Saturday.

“After getting over the hurdle of figuring out how we were going to practice together again, it automatically felt like old times,” Conley said. “I had athletes calling all the time asking when practice would start again, and so many parents were excited, too.”

While the Honokaa Hawks won’t be competing in the state games this year, the team will be preparing for a softball tournament on Saturday, May 14, at Waiakea High School.

“The community has really come through for us. Once people heard the Special Olympics was on again, Waiakea High School stepped up, and we had 100 to 150 volunteers sign up to help,” Dansdill said. “We were all so ready to interact in person and to be here at this very special, happy event.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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