After the last ball has been kicked and the last whistle blown, it’s about the hugs and the medals.
More specifically, it’s about the faces that instantly transform when presented the medals, the authentic wonder and pride of accomplishment displayed by competitors at the Special Olympics Soccer Tournament. That’s what does it for Greg Morrill.
“Up on the medals stand, when it’s all over – that’s one of the best aspects of the whole program,” said Morrill, office director for Special Olympics Mecklenburg County. “It’s very gratifying.”
The Oct. 19 tournament at Freedom Park, featuring special-needs students from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, will complete a lot of hard work by the competitors.
“Just seeing the athletes and their teams training week in and week out from the beginning of the school year, and all the hard work they put in – and then to see them at the competition and do well, strive to get their medals, to see all that culminate is just a great feeling,” said Morrill, 49, of Concord.
The effort gets a considerable kick from Charlotte Soccer Academy, a competitive youth soccer program that’s in its second year of working with CMS to provide clinics for students.
CSA Executive Director Brad Wylde said the academy had committed to have its instructors work with students from at least 10 schools: Ardrey Kell High, Garinger High, Harding High, Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, Rocky River High, Vance High, Carmel Middle, Northeast Middle, Randolph Middle and Ridge Road Middle.
“It’s a great way for us to give back to the sport that has obviously given us so much to be in this profession full-time,” said Wylde, 38, a Charlottean from Kent, England. “It also seems to be a great success for those kids to get a little extra attention and care from guys who coach soccer for a living.”
He said CSA staff will also help out at the tournament: “I split my staff into two groups. We’ll line the fields and help get the fields ready, then referee the games. The second group will come in to complete the refereeing.”
The tournament consists of games and skills events. The latter “provides an opportunity for some of the lower-functioning athletes to still participate and compete, on a field next to where the soccer matches are going on,” Morrill said. “They also have opportunities to medal.”
Jolanda Hengstman of Charlotte, a CMS adapted physical education teacher for 20 years, has also worked that long with the Special Olympics. She said the soccer tournament will include about a dozen teams and 75 skills competitors. Some of the teams will unified: half the members have intellectual disabilities and the other half does not.
Hengstman emphasized that despite the tournament’s special circumstances, standard rules apply.
“Our teams train just like any other sport team to get ready for their competition,” she said. “It is a true competition, and we try to play by the rules of the governing body of the particular sports.”
Morrill said the tournament is “one of our signature events of the fall,” along with bocci and roller skating competitions. “We serve more athletes in the soccer program than we have ever before.”
Regardless of the Special Olympics competition, the students “don’t get enough recognition,” Morrill said. “They’re out there working hard, and all their schools and teachers and families see them, but we’d like the community to also see what’s going on.”
Hengstram reminded that anybody can be a Special Olympics volunteer.
“You just have to sign up and go through a short screening process. We always need volunteers.”