GODFREY – One only has to attend a Special Olympics event to see the epitome of teamwork, purity of heart and the best in good sportsmanship.
Beverly Farm Equestrian Program Director Jeff Rains says when athletes from his equestrian center competed last month, they made Greater Alton proud with their conduct.
“Lauren entered the ring, and then proceeded to thank everyone for coming to watch, acknowledged the other riders, and waved hello to the judge,” Rains said. “She completed her event and then thanked everyone all over again. The whole crowd cheered, realizing what a wonderful individual she was for recognizing the others and the spectators.
“You just never know what is going to happen at these events.”
Nine athletes from the center traveled to Bergmann Centre in Poplar Grove, Ill., for the 2014 Illinois Special Olympics Equestrian Competition on Oct. 25 and 26, part of the 2014 Special Olympics Fall Games.
The athletes excelled at the event, winning one gold, three silver, five bronze, five fourth- and four fifth-place medals. Rains says the residents worked hard, practicing every Thursday with coaches. Eighteen riders competed in two qualifying competitions, one in August and one in September, and nine qualified for the state level.
Rains says all of the athletes have some sort of intellectual or physical challenge, to varying degrees. While obstacles such as Down syndrome, autism and a variety of other challenges are not easy to overcome, he says determination often can overcome any of life’s roadblocks.
“Every athlete has a challenge,” he said. “It all depends on the athlete. If they enjoy this and work hard, they excel, no matter what the disability.”
Twenty volunteers traveled with the riders last month to help with the competition, including the four Beverly Farm coaches (Rains, Krista Kell, Terri Hartman and Dawn Leleniewski). Five horses also made the journey (A Good Reflection, An Awesome Scotch, A Windy Flash, Pepe and Buddy), some from the farm and others provided by Good Samaritans in the community, some of whom also provided equipment for the riders to use.
“If it were not for these people volunteering their time and equipment, our job would be so much more difficult,” Rains said. “Community support is really what helped us to be able to compete and be successful.”
Equestrian first became an official sport of the Special Olympics in 1987 when they debuted at the World Games. Special Olympics Illinois added equestrian as a sport in 1990. This year, more than 100 equestrian athletes competed to a crowd of about 500 spectators.
Opening ceremonies include a dinner, dance and costume party. The group from Beverly Farm was able to stay at a nearby Girl Scout camp.
“That helped with the cost of housing, and the residents really enjoyed the camp,” Rains said. “They got to have a bonfire, make S’Mores and sing songs. Times like that really help teach camaraderie, interaction and how to enjoy down time together.”
Events in the competition include stock seat equitation (rail work, walking and trotting, and complete a pattern), showmanship (lead the horse, show the judges, then complete the pattern), and trail (compiled of seven obstacles — cone maneuvering, walk over logs, walk over bridge, trot over logs, trot through cones, stop at barrel, pick up a basket, and back horse from barrel to barrel.)
Ranging in age from 17 to mid-50s, the riders from Beverly Farm contained a mixture of athletes who had competed in the games in years past as well as those new to the scene. For Jonathan, this being his first year did not stop him from winning a gold medal in showmanship.
“Several of the athletes did exceptionally well handling their horses,” Rains said. “We are not allowed to assist or coach them in any way once they are through that gate, so from there on it is all on them.”
Other medals went to Mike, Jerry, Jeff, Andrea, Lauren, Lynne, Michael and Liz.
Another lesson all athletes can learn from the area’s local Special Olympics representatives is to never give up. Rains holds up Lynne as an example, who completed her trail pattern but forgot to “back up” at the end.
“When she realized what she had done, she stopped and turned to the judge and said ‘Oops,’” he says with a proud smile. “She backed all the way up, completed the trail, and ended up winning a silver medal.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Beverly Farm privacy guidelines necessitate the use of first names only for residents.