Miami-Dade County

Special Olympics of Miami-Dade raises self-esteem for more than 4,000 athletes

Danny Cartaya was having a long, stressful day with plenty weighing heavily on his mind both at work and at home. Dragging himself through the day, he prepared to wrap it up by coaching his basketball team through an afternoon practice before he returned to his wife, who was on the verge of delivering a baby.

The first person he saw: Joey Reyes.

Joey was 15 at the time with Down syndrome, functioning on a shortage of oxygenated blood and about to undergo heart surgery in the coming days.

With everything that Joey could reasonably be more concerned with in his condition, his commitment to his team led him to apologize for missing a practice that he was physically incapable of participating in and even make it up to his coach.

“Sorry I couldn’t be at practice, but I can sit and I can watch and I can still learn,” he said, according to Cartaya, who serves as athletic director among the many hats he wears for Our Pride Academy, a nonprofit organization in Miami dedicated to meeting the needs of children and adults with developmental disabilities.

The perspective was enough to push Cartaya to give maximum effort coaching practice for his team of dedicated Special Olympics athletes on a day he had every excuse to just cruise through the motions.

Joey is just one of many individuals who has had their life impacted by the Special Olympics community.

Special Olympics gives people with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to participate in sports, develop physical abilities and social skills and legitimately compete on a local and worldwide scale on a platform that’s enjoyable and rewarding for athletes and volunteers alike.

Some extraordinary work is happening in South Florida.

Special Olympics Florida in Miami-Dade serves more than 4,000 athletes, offering 17 different sports that train year-round with the leadership and assistance of more than 2,600 volunteers.

‘Rewarding, but so much more’

Doing more than just providing athletic opportunities for participants, Special Olympics Miami-Dade develops its athletes in a variety of ways.

“It’s rewarding, but it’s so much more than that,” says Linsey Harris Smith, director of Special Olympics Miami-Dade. “We’re a holistic organization.”

An initiative that exemplifies that notion is the Athlete Leadership Program.

Under this program, athletes are trained in public speaking, technology, governance and work-related skills. There are “athlete leaders” such as Andy Miyares, who have accomplished such feats as co-hosting the opening ceremonies to the national games in front of 70,000 people, to serving on the State Input Council, lobbying in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., for support of Special Olympics initiatives.

Special Olympics athletes are two times as likely to gain employment as persons with disabilities that don’t participate in the program.

Social skills are ripened through Special Olympics, giving those who otherwise have difficulty developing friendships an avenue to turn that around.

Take Ricky Dager, for example, who participates on the city of Doral’s team. His mother, Elizabeth Dager, says all that was available to him was to sit in his room, watch television and listen to his iPod. She adds that the family would need to invite several of his siblings’ friends to birthday parties so that they appeared fuller.

“Five years ago, Ricky got involved with Special Olympics, and by doing so, he began to blossom into an amazing human being,” Elizabeth said in a testimonial provided by Harris Smith. “Special Olympics is not only about the sports the athletes play, but also about the lifelong friends that they are able to make. He has become more empowered, more sociable, independent and most importantly happier.”

Harris Smith adds: “She said that the moment he joined Special Olympics that his social calendar became so packed that she can’t even keep up with it now. Every day there’s something going on.”

It’s not just a way for the athletes to connect, but parents in similar situations with children with disabilities are able to network. Another key cog is that there is no age limit for Special Olympics participation.

“What we find is that our athletes at public schools are really well-supported by their teachers, the school system, but when they age out at 23, there’s no support whatsoever,” Harris Smith says. “That’s really when Special Olympics kicks in and creates a network of support for them and an environment where they really feel that they’re not alone.”

The Unified Sports program, generally for more advanced “traditional” Special Olympics athletes, allows them to compete in a combined team with regularly developing individuals called “partners.” This helps build the sense of inclusion for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with the rest of society.

Cartaya coaches a University of Miami unified team, consisting of members of the Special Olympics UM student organization, which hosted the Area Basketball Games the past two years at the school’s Herbert Wellness Center.

Special Olympics is broken down into divisions for athletes at different levels, going as basic as the Motor Activity Training Program geared towards serving the “profoundly disabled,” which might focus on simple movements. Just throwing a tennis ball might be an achievement at this level.

“We’ll take the guy who can’t dribble, and we’ll teach him how to dribble,” Cartaya said.

But make no mistake about it, the athletes with greater ability take it seriously.

Taking ownership

While some might view Special Olympics as the “underbelly of athletics,” as Cartaya describes the perception, several athletes participate competitively.

One of his basketball players, David Rams, once injured his ankle during a game. As Cartaya was about to take him out, Rams insisted he could continue playing. He overexerted his ankle one more time and ended up spraining it — at which point, despite Rams’ persistent effort to remain on the court — Cartaya called a timeout and forced him to sit.

After the game, which his team lost, Cartaya says Rams took so much ownership for it he told his team, “I’m sorry, guys. I let you down.”

Competition goes from County Games to Area Games to States, Nationals and World Games.

The World Games this year will be held in Los Angeles, and Miyares has qualified in swimming. At last year’s Nationals in New Jersey, Miami-Dade sent 20 athletes in softball and track and field.

Cartaya, on top of coaching basketball, also coaches a track team, which will be traveling to the upcoming Penn Relays, and says he has a 400-meter relay team that can run it in 51 seconds.

When it comes to basketball, Cartaya will put his team up against anybody.

“I try to get them to play against regularly developing people, so that they can see the game the way it’s meant to be played — without pity,” he says. “The game doesn’t care that you have Down syndrome. The game doesn’t care that you don’t know what side of the basket to go to. You have to care. You have to know.”

He once himself put the whistle and clipboard down and took the court with his players.

“It was probably one of my favorite athletic moments,” Cartaya said. “They all really look up to me, and they have no idea how much I look up to them.

“They really have touched my life in such a way that I can’t imagine it without them.”

There’s countless others that have taken the same initiative and revolutionized what Special Olympics can be.

“Our goal, definitely as an organization, but also in Miami-Dade County, is to break down barriers for our athletes and change society’s perception of their abilities,” Harris Smith said.