Special Olympics Texas Keeps Athletes Motivated Virtually

S.O. Connected app includes coaching videos, nutrition advice, and more

Bruce Clarke competing (Courtesy of Special Olympics Texas)

Bruce Clarke should be congregating weekly with his fellow teammates, getting in his final basketball practice in preparation for the Special Olympics Texas (SOTX) Summer Games. But things are a bit different this time around.

As a result of COVID-19, SOTX has postponed all events, including practices and competitions, through May 31. The 51st annual Summer Games were set to take place from April 30 to May 3 in San Antonio.

"I feel like anytime something gets taken away from our athletes, it's always kind of sad because they don't have other social activities that they're involved with other than through Special Olympics," says Clarke, who also serves as a leadership coordinator.

SOTX acted swiftly in rolling out a virtual platform for athletes to stay connected.

"It's important that Special Olympics provides a place of inclusion, support, and community for our athletes during the unprecedented outbreak of the Coronavirus," SOTX CEO and President Tim Martin stated in a press release. "We needed to create a program that would engage and connect our athletes at a time that mandates social isolation."

S.O. Connected is an exclusive at-home program run on the app Flipgrid. It provides athletes with virtual activities in three different disciplines: "We have S.O. Active, where athletes and coaches can post videos of how they're staying active during this time; we have S.O. Nutrition, which is different healthy foods that athletes can cook and what they like to eat; and then we have S.O. Extracurricular, which is everything beyond sports," Clarke explains.

Extracurriculars can include anything from artwork to gaming to the music users are listening to. There is also personal recognition, where athletes can shout out community figures or family members that they admire.

The program is currently run by SOTX staff who create daily engagement opportunities for users across the state, ranging from uploading videos that demonstrate skills to friendly competitions.

"We're not just serving our Special Olympics athletes, we are also serving our community," Director of Development Sarah Ribeiro says.

With close to 60,000 Special Olympics athletes in Texas and 36,000 volunteers, anyone is welcome to join in on the activities.

Athletes were in the middle of training when the world went virtual. They usually practice for eight weeks leading up to the games, so this change of pace has been an adjustment.

"It's different because our athletes are used to practicing and competing," Clarke says. "It takes a little while for athletes to get used to the virtual aspect."

However, the app has been well-received thus far and only continues to grow.

"I would say that it's just been such a huge success that we're going to keep it as a permanent platform for our athletes and for the community," Ribeiro says. "Once we are back to normal again, this is not going to go away. We're going to continue to use it as an opportunity to engage with everybody."

SOTX has also launched an S.O. Connected virtual run in place of the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run. Options include running a 5K or walking 2 miles at any location and at any pace. The overarching goal is to encourage athletes to remain active during this time. The event takes place June 1-6.

Things may be different for now, but SOTX continues to put the needs of their athletes, like Clarke, first.

"The main priority continues to be inclusion," Ribeiro says. "That means keeping our athletes very involved in every way and connected with the rest of the community."

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Special Olympics Texas, S.O. Connected, Bruce Clarke, Tim Martin, Sarah Ribeiro, FlipGrid, SOTX, Law Enforcement Torch Run

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