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Backup plans in place for SOPA

The Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games have been a fixture at Penn State University for over three decades.

Representing the state’s largest Special Olympics competition that typically involves more than 2,000 athletes, 750 coaches and more than 1,000 volunteers, the SOPA Summer Games feature competition in eight events — swimming, basketball, equestrian, gymnastics, softball, golf, tennis and athletics.

This year’s SOPA Summer Games, set for June 11-13, were canceled in their actual form because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but SOPA Chief Executive Director Matt Aaron is gearing for the event to go on by offering Virtual Games via the internet on the same dates that could attract even more participants.

“It’s something that we’re really excited about,” Aaron said in a recent telephone conversation. “We’re trying to make lemonade out of all these lemons.

“We know that we can’t do the Games in person, but we’re trying to look at it as an opportunity to maybe do some things differently that will actually be better for our athletes.”

Increasing the number of athletes is a big part of that equation.

“We typically have just over 2,000 athletes who come and compete in the Summer Games,” Aaron said. “But we serve 20,000 athletes from around the state. Some of these athletes will never get the opportunity to come to Penn State in person, so with the Virtual Games this year, we’re trying to reach many more athletes and make it possible for any athlete around the state who wants to be a part of the Summer Games to be a part of them through the Virtual Games.”

Details are still being worked out, but are expected to be announced by Aaron and the Special Olympics Pennsylvania organization very soon.

“We have a team of staff working with our Summer Games committee – which is a volunteer committee that would normally be planning the in-person Games that are really now being pivoted to the Virtual Games,” Aaron said. “We’re looking at what other states are doing – for example, Special Olympics Minnesota was the first state out of the gates with a plan for the Virtual Games, and Tennessee is doing some things virtually.”

The committee will attempt to keep some of the same elements of the traditional SOPA Summer Games intact for this year’s Virtual Games.

“We’re going to have Virtual Opening Ceremonies, and the Virtual Victory Dance again — those are things that our athletes look forward to,” Aaron said. “They typically happen at the same time each year, with the Opening Ceremonies on Thursday night (June 11 this year) and the Victory Dance on Friday evening (June 12). We’re going to stick to that, so for our athletes who are familiar with that, the Virtual Games will have some of the same feel as the in-person Games.

“But we’re also going to try to provide some opportunities leading up to that, things like health and wellness activities and sports challenge activities that we’re trying to put into place, so more athletes can participate,” Aaron added.

Aaron said that some details could be released as early as this Friday.

“We haven’t figured out all the details yet, but we’re anticipating some sort of an on-line registration process, where athletes can sign up,” Aaron said. “We’ll have a way for them to register and enter their scores online as part of the actual Virtual competition. We hope to be sharing more information with some of our local programs by Friday.”

The SOPA Blair County organization is a member of the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Central (division), which includes programs from 17 counties, including Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Huntingdon and Centre.

Faith Horton, the manager of the Blair County program, said that the athletes who are part of that program have been doing their best to stay prepared for competition.

“We’re still keeping in contact with our athletes,” Horton said. “The coaches call them, and the athletes are being encouraged to do a lot of Virtual activities where they still keep themselves moving, and they can post those activities (on the internet). That way, hopefully, they will be ready to go when they physically get the OK to go.”

The cancellation of this summer’s SOPA in-person Games followed the cancellation of the organization’s Indoor Winter Games, which had been scheduled for York County in early March.

The fact that many Special Olympics athletes suffer from underlying health conditions that put them at an increased risk with the COVID-19 virus made canceling the in-person Summer Games — which would have celebrated their 33rdyear at Penn State this June — a necessary, but albeit painful decision.

“The decision was one that we made in conjunction with Penn State University itself,” Aaron said. “They’ve been our partner with the Summer Games for more than 30 years, and we worked with Penn State and we also worked with the state of Pennsylvania through the DCED (Department of Community and Economic Development) leading up to the final call to cancel the in-person games this year.

“To cancel the biggest event that your organization runs each year is not easy to do, so from that standpoint, it was really difficult,” Aaron said. “But from a health standpoint, it was obvious that we really didn’t have a choice. Bringing several thousand people together on the campus of Penn State University in early June was just not realistic, was not safe.”

Aaron is hoping that the Virtual competition can help to fill the void.

“We’re excited about the Virtual Games,” Aaron said. “We hope that it will be a good opportunity for our athletes.”

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