It’s an athletic event of global proportions: 7,500 athletes from more than 190 countries are competing in 24 sports at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Of those thousands, four athletes from Las Vegas qualified for Team USA: Elizabeth Headworth and Stacey Allen for bowling, Thomas Labarbera for bocce and Christine McCullough for track and field.
“It’s fun to represent the U.S. and Nevada in the World Games,” McCullough said a few days before she departed for the long journey to the Middle East. The games ran March 14 to 21
As a show of support, her community, Skye Canyon, hosted a road race and pancake breakfast last week, which raised $2,500 to benefit Special Olympics.
“I get to meet a lot of new friends I haven’t met before from a lot of different states,” McCullough said.
McCullough’s younger sister and housemate, Tammy, sees even bigger benefits.
“I think the most exciting part is the independence that they’re gaining from this,” she said. “It’s bringing her out of her shell. She’s more independent. She’s working harder on her own. She’s taking the initiative to go to the gym and work out with her trainer.”
Effort and Inclusion
Recognized by the International Olympic Committee, Special Olympics has been serving athletes with intellectual disabilities for 50 years.
A huge variety of sports programs and competitions happen year-round, but the World Games is the big event. It occurs biannually, alternating between spring and summer sports.
“This is a moment they have but once in a lifetime,” said Harry Mong, senior director of programs and partnerships for Special Olympics Nevada. “They’re going to experience things that me and you may not be able to experience. I love the fact that our program gives them opportunities they may not have gotten in other organizations.”
Special Olympics Nevada promotes enrichment, education, health and inclusion in bringing together individuals of all ability levels. The group has more than 3,000 athletes statewide.
“It means everything to them,” Monk said.
Because of its multifaceted mission, competing in the Special Olympics is about more than just winning. In fact, the Special Olympics athlete oath is: “Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” McCullough embodies this motto.
“It doesn’t matter how fast I go as long as I’m there to have fun,” McCullough said. She encourages friends who may judge themselves harshly to avoid being negative and instead focus on being happy and learning to improve from experience.
“Christine is one of the most positive women I have the opportunity to coach,” said Stephenie Heagerty, a volunteer track and basketball coach for Special Olympics Nevada. “She’s just a ray of sunshine always. She always gives 110 percent. I was thrilled to hear she was selected to go to international stage to represent Nevada. I don’t think there’s a better representative for our state than Christine.”
Heagerty said she’s seen McCullough grow as a person through her athletic pursuits. She’s more resilient and less bothered by the small stuff. And she’s taken a leadership role among her fellow athletes, Heagerty said.
The competition to be a volunteer coach representing the USA in Abu Dhabi is fierce. This year, none of the local coaches got to attend, but they’ll be there in spirit.
Heagerty said she would send this message to McCullough as she competes on the other side of the world: “Shine bright, girlfriend, just as you do here in Las Vegas. Represent Nevada proudly. We are so proud of you.”
Bocce coach Cathy O’Neal had a similar message for Labarbera: “Do your best and have a great time,” O’Neal said.
Strength of volunteers
All Special Olympics activities are free for participants, so the program relies on generosity, both in dollars and volunteer hours. The Nevada program employs five staffers and about 4,000 volunteers, who do everything from coaching, training, fundraising and helping at events.
One volunteer, Nevada Department of Corrections officer Steve Prentice, was honored with the role of participating in opening ceremonies on March 14 in Abu Dhabi. He ran the final leg of the torch run, which leads to lighting the cauldron that signifies the start of the World Games.
The volunteers seem to get as much joy from Special Olympics as the athletes.
“People compliment me for being involved in Special Olympics,” O’Neal said. “I just let them know I do it because I’m very selfish. I do it for the joy it gives me. I just love being involved with the athletes. They are just so inspiring.”