SMSU Students Coach Special Olympic Athletes


Kevin Danielson, Staff Writer

Southwest Minnesota State University student coaches Freshman Konghye Her, Junior Shayna Smith, and Senior Jordan ZonderVan trained Special Olympic athletes in track for the first time of the season on April 7.

“It’s fun helping out with the Special Olympics and just hanging out with them and helping them get better at their sports,” said Her.

“It helps me gain a different perspective,” said ZonderVan. “I really enjoy helping out with Special Olympics. It’s been a really great experience that I’d maybe like to continue for the rest of my life.”

Student coaches ran with the athletes and engaged them in various exercises, along with Head of Delegation for Marshall Area Special Olympics Marilyn Strate.

“The SMSU students who participate gain much from the athletes on a personal relationship, communication skills, and community service,” said Strate. “Once students [volunteer], they find out they really love it.”

Marshall Area Special Olympics offers eight sports for athletes to compete in: aquatics, basketball, bocce, bowling, equestrian, power lifting, track, and unified flag football. The area has around 70 athletes ranging from ages four to sixty-nine.

Many of the student volunteers coach more than one sport. Her has coached basketball and unified flag football in addition to track. The Marshall Area unified flag football team, The Dragons, participated in the state meet last fall and took first place in their division.

Eight SMSU students coached Marshall Area athletes in the Special Olympics Minnesota Spring Games on March 28-30. The athletes participated amongst 1841 athletes from around the state. Aquatics, basketball, and powerlifting were the events. Junior Denae Brooks was a coach for aquatics.

“I get to coach and work with the most amazing kids,” said Brooks. “I love seeing the smile on their face after any small or large accomplishment. Going to state was a great time. Seeing them on the podium, proud of their ribbons and medals was so cool.”

Coaching powerlifting at the event was student coach Matthew Stark, pursuing a career in special education.

“The athletes at Special Olympics State are so grateful, and remind me that athletes need to complete for the joy of competition and not just winning,” said Stark.

Stark has been working at group homes for the past five years. He was introduced to the Special Olympics when one of his clients participated in the events. Never having siblings, Stark finds joy in training with the athletes.

“It is like having a bunch of little brothers that look up to you,” said Stark. “It is a great feeling, and they truly value and appreciate your time.”

Shayna Smith, an education major, became involved with coaching track from talking with Stark.

“It’s cool to see a wide range of abilities,” said Smith. “Seeing all of these different disabilities, you can really carry it into the classroom.”

Coaching Special Olympic athletes to success has been a unique experience for all involved.

“Throughout my educational journey I have fallen in love with working people of disability,” said Stark.