The Special Olympics of Texas gives local athletes a chance to shine.
By Jenny Hoff
Fifteen-year-old Reagan Lowman is a walking miracle…literally. After suffering a stroke in utero, Lowman was born with a cleft in her brain. At 2 years old, doctors told her parents she would never walk and that they should concentrate on speech therapy instead. This month, she’ll be competing as a cyclist in the Special Olympics Winter Games being held Feb. 18 through 20 in Reagan’s hometown of Bee Cave, TX, and neighboring Lakeway.
“After the doctors gave us their opinion, I immediately looked up alternative therapies,” says her mom, Marie, relaxing with her daughter on the back patio of their Bee Cave home, which overlooks acres of unspoiled hill country land. Land that houses a horse, two donkeys, two dogs, chickens and honeybees. “I came upon something called hippotherapy—therapy through horses.”
Marie found a local woman, RED Arena Founder Jen Young, who was starting a hippotherapy program and asked if she could bring Reagan to try it out. “She rode for an hour and screamed her head off the whole time,” says Marie. When they got home that night, Marie asked Reagan to carry something over to her dad, keeping hope alive that she would eventually walk. To her shock, Reagan stood up and ambled over to her father.
“At that moment, Jen called me and said, ‘I’ve got some really sad news,’” recalls Marie. One of her horses had died. “She said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to move forward with hippotherapy.’ I said, ‘Jen, stop right there. Reagan just took her first steps.’”
Thirteen years later, Young’s RED Arena has two facilities and has helped hundreds of children with disabilities attain milestones their families never thought possible. Marie is vice president of RED’s board of directors and says she witnesses miracles everyday. Special needs kids walking and talking for the first time and gaining a new sense of confidence in their abilities.
Beyond the practical benefits, Marie says participation in programs like RED and the Special Olympics give children a strong social network beyond their immediate family. The world opens up, and they form lifelong friendships.
Reagan counts the friendships she has made as her favorite part of the Special Olympics. In a society where living with special needs can often isolate children, the more than 300 annual Special Olympics competitions give the athletes a chance to hear the cheers of their community and work with other students their age who might not have special needs but play the same sport.
“When we host our statewide games in a city, one of our goals is to create a ‘unified’ school district,” explains Sarah Ribeiro, director of development for Special Olympics Texas (SOTX). “For these winter games in Bee Cave and Lakeway, we are already working with Lake Travis ISD to create a unified campus.”
A unified campus is an initiative within the school system that aims to create an environment of social inclusion between students with and without intellectual disabilities. It creates a culture of understanding and empathy through meaningful involvement in unified sports, whole school engagement and inclusive youth leadership. These partnerships are often created through the Special Olympics games, which introduces the organization to a new community.
The Host City
For this reason, choosing a host city is more than just looking for an event space. It’s about building a true partnership that will last for years. Cities often bid for the opportunity to host the competition, as it brings thousands of people to town and showcases the city’s amenities and communities to a wide audience. SOTX looks for a city that will also contribute financially to the games, since they aim to pay for every athlete’s hotel and attendance, as well as a community that will fill the volunteer rosters and come out to cheer the competitors on. Bee Cave and Lakeway City Councils voted to contribute $100,000 each from their hotel occupancy tax funds to this year’s games. Event organizers say there has been an unprecedented showing of support from the community, people eager to volunteer and contribute.
“We are just so excited to host the Texas Special Olympics’ Winter Games,” says Bee Cave Mayor Kara King, who is also a middle school science teacher. “We can’t wait to cheer them on in their competition and volunteer to make this weekend so special for everyone involved. I’m especially eager to see kids who were at our school and have since graduated come back to Bee Cave and compete. I just know our community is going to come out in full force and make these games an experience of a lifetime.”
Let the Games Begin
While the competitions play a key role, the games are much more than a test of athleticism. With free hearing and vision tests, many adult athletes get critical health services throughout the weekend. The events surrounding the games are truly “olympic.”
The games begin with the athletes participating in a torch run with local police, running throughout the community as neighbors welcome them to the city and then ceremoniously placing the torch in a central location for the entire weekend. The opening ceremonies will take place at Bee Cave’s famed Star Hill Ranch, a recreation of an early 1900s Texas town filled with historical buildings that have been the backdrop to many movies and star-studded events. Local restaurants will provide food and drink as legendary WWE wrestlers, including “The Undertaker” Mark Calaway, who lives in the area, emcee the event. Pitch Perfect film actress and singer Kelley Jakle will sing the national anthem and other songs for the hundreds of attendees throughout the night.
“What I want most is for the athletes to feel celebrated. Not just for their accomplishments but for who they are,” says Jakle. “I’m pinching myself that I get to be a part of the Special Olympics family. I can’t wait to sing and dance the night away in their honor!”
For most of the participants, especially those who have already graduated, the events and competitions throughout the Special Olympics are their main social activity for the year. Proof that COVID-19 has hit the special needs community especially hard. Since many of the athletes are high risk, the Special Olympics has had to shut down all in-person activities for two years. Leaving many participants without any social interaction outside of their homes. This will be the first time since 2019 that most of the athletes have had a chance to see and talk to their friends.
Athletes like Sydney Weigand, who hasn’t seen her boyfriend, Brennan, since the onset of the pandemic, appreciates the ability to see those she cares about at the event. “She only really gets to see him at the games,” says her mom and trainer, Delanie Weigand.
“I miss my best friend, Hayley, from Galveston too,” says Sydney after her 10 sit-up, 10 push-up and 10 squat warmup routine at the YMCA in Northwest Austin. “I will get to see her at the games.”
Sydney was diagnosed with Down Syndrome when she was 4 days old. Her mom says the most devastating part of the news was the possibility that her daughter could one day become a target of bullies or predators, unable to defend herself. “The first nurse said, ‘She is not going to have an aggressive bone in her body,’” recalls Delanie. “That was the worst thing she could have said. The thought of having a daughter who couldn’t stand up for herself was awful.”
But Delanie was pleasantly surprised a few days later when she realized her daughter was no pushover. “They had to sedate her because she was fighting the tubes so much,” she says, with a smile. “I thought, ‘Yes! That’s what I want to see.’”
Sydney has been bulldozing her way through life since that moment 25 years ago. With 200 medals from competing in Special Olympics games since she was 8 years old, a high school diploma and a personal care attendant certification from the University of Texas, Sydney is constantly striving for new challenges. She now works as an office assistant with the U.S. Money Reserve, has an active social media presence and is debating whether she’s ready for her boyfriend to propose to her. (Which would likely mean she would have to join him in Dallas.) Brennan also has Down Syndrome and, like Sydney, is very independent, has a job and is primarily self-sufficient.
“Our biggest battle is getting people to treat her like they would anyone else,” says Delanie. “She will achieve what you set out for her to do. A lot of people underestimate her. Our goal is to make sure she is not underestimated.”
Special Olympics: An Opportunity for Education
Delanie says the Special Olympics has played a pivotal role in helping educate others about the true capabilities of children born with special needs, as well as the unique joy, love and acceptance they bring to the world.
She admits she had her own preconceived notions when she learned of her daughter’s condition. Not understanding yet just how much Sydney would be able to accomplish, extra chromosome or not.
“My husband and I are both athletes,” Delanie says. “I always pictured my daughter as a brown-haired, pony-tailed athletic girl. I thought that dream was gone when she was born. But she is that and so much more. She even lettered in Round Rock ISD sports. She is everything I pictured and yet so much nicer than me, sees the good in everyone.”
Delanie says Sydney’s involvement in the Special Olympics has changed her life. Not only through the social interaction and opportunity to compete in sports, but the exposure she’s had to politicians, actors and musicians. A few years ago, she won a fundraiser for the Special Olympics, which earned her a date with the Jonas Brothers and free tickets to their concert in Seattle. She has given speeches on health, produced a video about healthy living with her brother, a filmmaker, and has performed in musical theater and dance.
“When she was born, I bought these books to learn how to help her,” says Delanie. “I learned really quickly to put them on the shelf because she was an individual and we were there just to follow her lead. She’s taken us to some pretty amazing places.”
Feeling Better About Humanity
The next place Sydney will be taking her family are the Winter Games in Bee Cave and Lakeway. The competitions will center around floorball, volleyball, powerlifting, cycling and golf. Sydney plans to compete in powerlifting. She can bench-press 75 pounds and deadlift 145 pounds.
“I think the talent level that you see at the Special Olympics shocks a lot of people, how good so many are,” says Delanie. “The attitudes, the smiles, their outlook on life. You always walk away from a Special Olympics event feeling better about humanity as a whole.”
Special Olympics Texas serves almost 59,000 child and adult athletes. The chance that an intellectually disabled individual will become employed is almost double for those who participate in Special Olympics. With more than 40,000 volunteers across the state, SOTX is reaching its goal to create greater inclusivity for special needs kids. Creating that unity not only greatly impacts the quality of life for the athletes, but for the volunteers as well.
“Just being around these special athletes and by donating your time, it’ll be something you thank yourself for forever,” says Calaway.
The Special Olympics exists through donations and volunteers. Which is why game weekends include fundraisers to ensure SOTX can provide health services, accommodations, food and more to the athletes. On Feb. 18, SOTX will host a VIP event at Lakeway resort with the hopes of raising $100,000 from individuals in the area to keep the games going. Two days later, NFL fans and business owners can purchase sponsorships to an exclusive bowling event with NFL players, USA Olympic athletes and WWE wrestlers at High 5 in Lakeway. The Winter Games is truly an event that involves the whole community.
“Our goal is that Special Olympics Texas never has to look for another home,” says Bee Cave City Manager Clint Garza. “We want to show them how much our community supports what they do and give them a reason to stay here for as many years as possible.”
Marie Lowman agrees, and it’s why she worked hard to bring the Special Olympics to Bee Cave. While the games have typically been held in bigger cities like Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, she believes in the power of smaller communities to deliver much more than expected. So far, she’s been proven right.
“We’ve never seen a volunteer response like we have here,” says Chad Eason, senior director of competition and games for SOTX. “Within a month of our announcing the city, half our volunteer slots were filled, and some competitions already had no spots left.”
For Reagan and Sydney, the weekend is about reconnecting with old friends, making new ones and proving that doing hard things isn’t a burden, but rather a chance to show just what they’re capable of.