Jacksonville-area athletes head to Special Olympics USA


Jacksonville Stand Up paddle board athlete Megan Bell has a plan this week as she joins 20 other athletes from northeast Florida at the 2022 American Special Olympics in Orlando.

“I’m going to do my best and have fun,” the 31-year-old competitor said in the send-off to Friday’s games, along with Jaguars Roar cheerleaders, the D-Line drum line of the team and a motorcycle police escort.

Her first appearance at the American Games which are held every four years, she has been training for the competition for over a year.

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“I worked hard and ate healthy,” Bell said. “…I’m never afraid. I’m ready!”

Athletes from northeast Florida gather for a photo during Friday's send-off from TIAA Bank Field to the National Special Olympics in Orlando.

Echoing the “Go for the gold!” cheers were repeatedly given as athletes, coaches and families boarded the bus outside TIAA Bank Field, golfer Amanda Bussey waved as she was cheered.

“I will win the gold medal,” she said. “Golf is fun.”

Florida plays big at Special Olympics USA

Twenty-one runners, jumpers, swimmers, bowlers, jumpers, surfers and competitors from four other sports compete this week in Duval, St. Johns, Nassau, Putnam, Flagler, Volusia and Clay counties. They are part of Florida’s 600 Special Olympians, the largest contingent in the state, competing at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Exploria Stadium, the US Tennis Association‘s national campus and eight other venues near Orlando.

It will be an epic event for local athletes, said Special Olympics Northeast Florida Regional Director Justin Copertino. But he said their chances were “gold, just gold”.

“These athletes have been training for this for so long, over a year,” he said. “With everything we’ve been through with the pandemic, it’s so great to be back, and it will be the experience of a lifetime, I told them.”

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Founded in 1968, Special Olympics competitions are held in approximately 190 countries and territories. The organization provides sports training and competitions for people with intellectual disabilities so that they can develop their physical fitness and participate with other athletes and the community.

The Jacksonville Regional Games were held on April 9 with 400 athletes from Duval and eight other area counties competing in multiple sports at Atlantic Coast High School. Then, on May 20 and 21, 600 Florida athletes competed in the State Summer Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.

Family, friends and volunteers cheer on representatives from the 2022 United States Special Olympics in northeast Florida en route to the national event June 5-12 in Orlando.  The opening ceremonies will take place on Sunday and the competitions will begin on Monday.

Now they are returning to the Orlando area to compete in 19 Olympic-style team and individual sports. Athletes in Northeast Florida will compete in swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, golf, track and field, tennis, triathlon, horseback riding, surfing, powerlifting and bowling.

Trained and ready for the start of the games

The Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the send-off Friday at its TIAA Bank lounge, kicking off with all the athletes and their families repeating the official oath that begins with “Let me win” and then ends with “Let me be brave in the attempt” if they cannot.

Charles Moreland, the city’s assistant general manager, thanked the athletes for the work they did to represent Jacksonville and the First Coast.

“It’s an exciting time to be so close to games in Orlando,” he said. “We hope that Floridians competing in the Special Olympics will support you so that you have the greatest success possible. We have home-court advantage!”

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Each athlete stood, saluted and sometimes applauded when officially introduced with many mothers and fathers cheering back when they were named.

As she waited to board the bus after loading up her daughter’s golf clubs, Julie Bussey said she had a good feeling for her daughter Amanda at the American games. The 37-year-old started playing golf 12 years ago when the Tournament Players Championship launched a Special Olympics golf program.

Triathlete Jennifer Hartley, center, and other Special Olympians parade to their bus Friday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville for an official send-off to the 2022 Special Olympics U.S. Games. Competition continues next weekend in Orlando .

“I think her chances are pretty good,” said her mother, who plans to walk the course while her daughter competes for four days.

“Amanda has a lot of self-confidence,” she said. “I think that’s what makes her a better golfer. She knows she’s going to hit well.”

Susan Bell also has a lot of faith in her daughter Megan Bell’s performance on stand-up paddleboarding.

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“She went to Orlando and Daytona to train,” her mother said. “It’s been a year of training for her. … All she can do is do her best. She knows what to do because she’s trained so well.”

Other competitors from Duval County include: Daniel Calloway, athletics/track and field; Ryan Luck, golfer; Sarah Appleton, swimming; Caleb Prewitt, triathlon; and Jennifer Hartley, triathlon.

“It’s great to see all the smiles and everyone is so excited,” Copertino said as Jaguars cheerleaders Jaxon DeVille and fans prepared for the send-off. “That’s what we’re talking about.”

Athletes arrive Friday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville for an official start to the 2022 Special Olympics USA in Orlando.

About 125,000 spectators will follow the competitions live, starting with the opening ceremony broadcast from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday on ABC-TV from Exploria Stadium. Coverage continues all week on ESPN and ESPN2, with streaming coverage on ESPN3. The full broadcast schedule is at bit.ly/3PSpcqi.

And the local Special Olympics competition is not over with the American games. Special Olympics Duval County is hosting a Zone 4 surfing competition on July 16 at Little Talbot Island State Park.

dscanlan@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4549

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