Duane Popham of Watertown, chairman of the South Dakota Special Olympics board of directors, stood quietly in the brisk breeze blowing across Lillibridge Track on the University of South Dakota campus Saturday morning, and simply took it all in.
Races were being run, young Special Olympic athletes were taking part in the standing long jump and the high jump competitions while others, fresh after finishing in their events, stood on the award stand and heard their names being announced as a hefty medal was hung on their necks.
It didn’t feel like summer, but the Special Olympics South Dakota State Summer Games were in full swing Saturday, following a festive opening ceremony Thursday night, May 16, in the Sanford Coyote Sports Center and swimming and powerlifting competitions held in the DakotaDome the day before.
Duane credits his daughter, Chelsea, for making his special experience in Vermillion possible that morning.
She was one of the scores of athletes taking part in Saturday’s games.
“My daughter is 34 and our first event was when she was eight years old,” he said. “There starting age is when they become eight. She drew us into this wonderful family … ‘
Duane paused a moment, batting back tears, his voice cracking.
“It’s an over-the-top experience. To come to these events … we get to see the satisfaction and the joy in their lives. It’s just … I’m all in. I just love this. It’s a passion,” he said.
Duane noted that her daughter, Chelsea, was one of the higher functioning athletes at Saturday’s Special Olympic games.
“She has several disabilities that qualify her. She is very athletic,” he said, “and she’s committed. She takes this very seriously. If she chooses to participate in a sport, we may have a family activity, but her Special Olympics are more important to her.”
That commitment has been awarded. Chelsea has been selected to participate in two separate Special Olympics World Games.
“She celebrated her 18th birthday in Ireland; she was a bowling participant,” Duane said. “Four years later, she was picked to go swimming in China. She trained hard; she received gold medals in both of her world game events. I’m very proud of her. I’m very proud of all of our athletes.”
He worries about new regulations and confidentiality rules that make it more difficult to identify youth who may qualify for and in turn benefit from Special Olympic activities.
“There may be some parents who aren’t aware of the possibilities and what this program does,” Duane said.
He recalls Chelsea’s first experiences as an 8-year-old Special Olympian. She was bashful.
“She was a wallflower,” Duane said, “and now I haven’t seen her for the last hour. She’s running to friends from Spearfish, from Rapid City, from Aberdeen. These are her friends, her extended family.”
Dances were held both last Thursday and last Friday nights for the athletes.
“For some, the dance last night was probably more important than the track today,” Duane said with a grin, adding that there is cultural aspect to the Special Olympics.
The Pophams try to visit special places in the various places they visit for competitions, ranging from Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument, to the capitol building in Pierre. Had rain washed out Saturday’s games, the family planned to visit a museum in Vermillion.
“It’s more than just athletics,” he said. “When you see athletes on the dance floor, some in wheelchairs and another person is holding their hands or holding their wheelchairs and rocking them – there’s a special inclusion that’s going on. It’s so heartwarming.
“The coaches – the people that coach Special Olympics – they really get it,” Duane said.
He pointed to dozens of volunteers, helping with everything from timing the races to making sure the young athletes receive the congratulations they deserve at the finish line. “These folks really get it, too. Once you work at an event, you’re committed. You never leave it. We’ve got you hooked.”
The Special Olympics South Dakota games got their start in Vermillion in 1968, but haven’t been held in the community for several years. Last week, it was hard to tell that the games were not a long-standing tradition in Vermillion, according to Johna Thum, vice president of field services who works at the Special Olympics South Dakota office in Sioux Falls.
“The people here have just been exceptional,” she said. “The facilities are phenomenal. I work a lot with the athletes. We had a meeting last night and I asked them their opinion of the games, which is the only opinion that really matters, and it was nothing but praise and highest of marks.”
The athletes had high marks for more than just the athletic facilities.
“We talked about the opening ceremonies and they all said it was beautiful,” Johna said. “They thought it was so awesome that there was a fellow there at these opening ceremonies who took part in the first summer Special Olympics in South Dakota in 1968,” Johna said.
Joe Dwyer, who today works as a custodian at USD, carried the torch at the first Special Olympics games in Vermillion 51 years ago.
“Good luck in what you’re going to be doing tomorrow in your sports,” Joe told the Special Olympics athletes at the May 16 opening ceremony. “I competed in swimming and running. In 1972, I qualified in Olympic swimming and went to the national Special Olympics in Los Angeles, California. I saw Rosie Grier and Rose Kennedy.”
“We are so excited that you are here,” Nate Welch, president and CEO of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company, told the Special Olympians during the event’s opening ceremony Thursday night, May 16, at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center on the University of South Dakota campus. “Fifty years ago, Vermillion was honored to be the home of where Special Olympics South Dakota launched. It is my pleasure to be representing the community in welcoming you home tonight as we begin the next 50 years of Special Olympics in South Dakota.
“To say that we are a community excited to host all of you athletes is an understatement. We are so honored to have each and everyone one of you here,” he said. “We can’t thank you enough for being here and bringing your spirit, and your enthusiasm and your competitiveness to our community.”
Jon Cole, a member of the Special Olympics South Dakota organizing committee, told those at Thursday’s opening ceremony that law enforcement officers helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help make the games possible.
“Last year alone, law enforcement officers in the state of South Dakota raised over $600,000,” he said.
Teams of law enforcement officers from both West River and East River South Dakota brought the “Flame of Hope” to Vermillion last Thursday. They were joined that evening by Vermillion runners in the community's downtown to accompany the South Dakota Special Olympics torch to the opening ceremony on the University of South Dakota campus.
The teams started Monday in Sioux Falls and Spearfish, crossing the state and arriving in Vermillion Thursday. Among this year’s stops for the “Flame of Hope” were Murdo, Pierre, Winner, Platte, Highmore and Miller.
“Fifty years ago, I was here when Special Olympics started in South Dakota and a gentleman on the stage with me, Joe Dwyer, was part of that when he was 12 years old and carried the torch,” Mayor Jack Powell told the athletes during last Thursday’s opening ceremony. “It is quite an honor to be back 50 years later.”
“My journey with Special Olympics started about 35 years ago when I was in high school and carried on as I went on to college and working through three different athletic departments,” Dave Herbster, the athletic director at USD, told the Special Olympics athletes during Thursday’s opening ceremony. Dave has served the past year as the chairman of the event’s organizing committee.
“I actually worked with the state office in Minnesota and yes, I even jumped in the water during the Polar Plunge,” he said last Thursday. “Being the organizing chair for the Special Olympics South Dakota state summer games is an incredible honor … I know what you go through, I know through the practicing you do how important it is to you and most of all, it’s about having this opportunity.”
The idea of having the summer South Dakota Special Olympics first came to life, Dave said, shortly after the Sanford Coyote Sports Center was completed, along with the new outdoor Lillibridge Track.
“Along with this facility, we also have a track and everything else that it takes to put on a first class summer games for you,” Dave told the Special Olympics athletes. “With the help of members of the Special Olympics board, this campus, this community, and a great number of volunteers have helped.
“All different elements of this community and campus and the state have come together and I’ve seen a level of cooperation and a work ethic that does not happen all of the time. It’s really been something special, and I think it’s because these games are a big deal,” he told the athletes last Thursday. “I think it is because you are a big deal and you all have inspired us to be better. I hope that over the course of this weekend, we can inspire you as well.”