For Special Olympian Erin Schmitt: participation is more than competition

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Saturday afternoon, November 12th I had the privilege of meeting with several young people from Switzerland County at the Hoosier Bowling Lanes in New Albany, Indiana. Together with hundreds of other participants from Area 12, they competed in the annual bowling tournament for Special Olympics.

As I went from lane to lane watching participants, I saw that Switzerland County was well represented. I also saw the enthusiasm and dedication each participant demonstrated. I watched them having so much fun. I witnessed the encouragement from their family and friends. I saw them encourage each other, knowing it was “their time”.

These things are what the Special Olympics program is all about. While I am very proud of all their efforts, I want to focus on the accomplishments of one particular athlete.

Erin Schmitt is 30 years old, and has been a participant since she was eight years old. Knowing this, I asked Erin and her mother Sharon Schmitt, if I could write about Erin’s involvement with Special Olympics. Both readily agreed.

I watched Erin as she prepared to bowl. She had her bowling bag containing her personal ball and very stylish bowling shoes. She located her lane assignment, changed her shoes, put her ball in the ball slot and waited for her team members to arrive. Each arrived, greeted Erin — as everyone in the surrounding lanes did, and started relating how they planned to bowl.

Erin, a more quiet and reserved bowler listened as they bragged about their plans for success. She smiled a lot and showed me a band-aid on a finger she had scraped. She told me she hoped it did not keep her from bowling a good game.

Most bowlers were able to get in three games. Due to the distance so many participants have to travel, time is always a factor in how many games can be completed. Erin bowled three games, and each time her score improved. She was enjoying the participation. While she enjoyed the support from her mother, she really picked up her game when Area 12 Coach Tim Hoffman came over to give her encouragement, including a hug. We saw a strike and spares after that.

Erin did not place in the top three that day. Only those places are given medals. The other places receive ribbons. Erin was happy to receive her ribbon. She has many medals and ribbons to mark the many events and placements for her 22 year involvement.

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Last week, I went to visit Erin in her home to discuss her participation through the years. As I talked with Erin, her mother and brother, Matt, I became more aware of what I already knew. Erin’s participation is something her whole family is proud of. It is something they have all been involved with.

Matt related that years ago, as soon as spring arrived, their father, Paul would have them out in the front yard, throwing the softball with Erin to help her prepare for the “softball toss”, an event she enjoyed participating in. Erin practiced for running relays and jumping events. Mother talked about the time Erin participated in gymnastics — she was happy and surprised to see her daughter moving in rhythm to the music.

She said she knows Erin’s practicing and participation helped to improve her gross and fine motor skills, something she needed and many people must improve through therapy. Mom also expressed how happy she is to know the emphasis is always placed on participation, not competition.

Erin stated she has enjoyed so many things through being a Special Olympian. She enjoys seeing old friends, their families, teachers, coworkers and former classmates. She (and Mom) think of it as a “reunion time”. They also supplement the trips with eating out and doing some shopping.

Erin has enjoyed participating in a number of events in many places including Madison, Clarksville, New Albany, Indianapolis and at the State Games in Terre Haute.

The Terre Haute experiences are especially favorites for her. She recounted enjoying the opportunity to be away from home spending nights in a dorm room at Indiana State University, meeting celebrities, attending the dance, eating “college food”, the long van trip, attending a theater with thousands of seats, giggling at night until her chaperone (me) said it was “time for you girls to go to sleep”, and the parade — the wonderful parade — where every area is introduced while a spot light shines on members showing their banner and unique area shirt for the games. Area participants are seated together. After the arena is filled, celebrity speakers welcome the participants, there is special entertainment and summer games are declared open.

Erin has competed in many track events. She said she had enjoyed, “All of them except the standing long jump”. Her favorite is bowling, a sport she also enjoys participating in at her local bowling lanes.

Erin proudly showed me her collection of medals. She has 10 gold for first, 10 silver for second, and 20 bronze for third. Some of her special medals include large ones with “Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation” on them; the 1993, 25th Anniversary medals; and the 1998 “Thirty years of Heroes” ones she earned at the state games. She also has many ribbons — so many she had no idea how many she’d collected.

As I listened to Erin, Matt and Sharon share their memories with me, I realized how much this program has meant to this family. I saw the pride, self esteem, and acceptance she has gained through her participation. I wondered what Erin and other participants would have done without this program. For most participants, it offers the only chance they will ever have to participate in organized sports.

Through my years of involvement at a coaching level, I have seen participants arrive ready to participate in cold, wet, hot, windy, gloomy or perfect weather. The track and fields might be wet and muddy, or dusty and dry, but they arrive ready to give their best.

I have seen volunteers from local schools, churches, colleges, civic organizations friends and family members. I have seen them leave, hot, wet, cold, sunburned, and tired. Even with at these conditions, I know they are glad to have been a part of Special Olympics and I know they will be back — just as Erin and her family have been for the past 22 years.

— Sharon Hansel

Coach, Area 12, Special Olympics