Special Olympics of Illinois promote belonging and inclusiveness at virtual summer games

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BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD)–A new way to play, the 2020 Special Olympics of Illinois going virtual amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The summer games is the biggest event of the year for the Special Olympics, but this year Olympians competed in the the first ever virtual summer games.

Normally, the summer games would bring in over 4,000 athletes and over 1,700 coaches from across Illinois to the twin cities for a week of competitive fun.

“People have years and years of friendships that they come back together,” said senior director of programming, Tracy Hilliard.

The current pandemic caused them to move the annual games from the campus of Illinois State University to an online setting. Hilliard says while nothing can replace in-person contact, this gives the athletes and their families a sense of belonging.

“This event is at least allowing people to come together virtually and on social media and reconnect somewhat.”

Opening ceremonies, activities all taking place on Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites. A local Bloomington family took part in this year’s games and says it gives the kids something to look forward to.

“Just to see the smile on their face when you mention Special Olympics, they both that’s just the highlight of their summer,” said Bloomington resident and parent Tera Knudsen.

The Knudsen family of Bloomington have been participating in the event for over ten years. They say this year’s event was different, but still lots of fun.

“Both kids have been really into it and excited.”

The event featured a focus on healthy living but also introduced a new esports element to keep the competitiveness of the event. Teams competed in the popular Rocket League game in an online tournament.

“You can hear the teammates talking to each other and against the other team. Rocket League is soccer with cars so you’re still scoring goals, you have to work on teamwork,” Hilliard said.

Athletes and the association alike are excited for next year’s event and hope to carry over some virtual elements into the games in the future.

“We’re hoping that our current athletes that it broadens the choices they have an in addition that it brings in new athletes who may be have a huge interest in E-sports, so we’re very excited about the future of esports,” Hilliard said.

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