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Special Olympics basketball team thrives

by on June 07, 2018 8:43 AM

UNIVERSITY PARK — More than 2,000 athletes from around the state came to Penn State to participate in the ninth Pennsylvania Special Olympics, May 31 to June 2. Among them were a team of eight basketball players from Centre County cherished the opportunity to compete and get together with old friends and meet new ones.

The Centre Lions basketball team works hard in the offseason, with weekly practices at the State College YMCA. There, coach Martin Wildy focuses on fundamentals and teamwork with a group that you can tell he really cares about. 

Wildy is very patient with his players when they lose focus, but he expects them to be good sports and be kind to each other. He sets a great example, as he never raises his voice and keeps his team on track with subtle gestures and kind words. He said he loves to watch his team come together and grow.

During games at the Special Olympics, Wildy sees all the hard work come together. The stakes can be high, as every team wants to do its best, but he said he is most proud of how his team comes together and supports each other. 

“These guys are great. Look at them out there; you can see it. They are having fun and getting along and helping each other," said Wildy. "It is great to see, but it is what I expect from these guys.

"They are a great group. No matter what they are dealing with, and it can be a lot for them, we get together on the court and try to have fun and work together. It is awesome to see. Sportsmanship is something we focus on."

And, at the Special Olympics, against teams from all over the state, you can see that sportsmanship in action. When a player misses a shot, sometimes frustration can take over, but soon the rest of the team offers encouragement and they move on together. High-fives are offered up often and the team always regroups with a huddle and encouragement no matter what the score is.

“We all want to win; that is natural. But, these guys get it — that it is about more than that — and are great sportsmen,” said Wildy. 
Many of the players are grateful for the team and the opportunities it gives them. Austin Bowen has been playing since he was 13. He said he loves the competition and takes the games very seriously, but more importantly he enjoys all the friends he gets to meet through the Special Olympics.

“I really am glad to make new friends here, and to get to play against the great competition,” said Bowen. He said he loves to play sports, especially basketball, and his parents said he has always been an athlete. They feel the Special Olympics is positive thing for all the athletes involved.

“It is a great opportunity for all the athletes. They learn teamwork, the joy of victory, that hard work pays off and, hopefully, they learn that the most important thing is the competition and the being together,” said Austin's father, Kevin Bowen.

“Austin started playing at 13 and playing in the Special Olympics is really part of his identity. He was named Centre County Athlete of the Year at 17 or 18, the youngest ever. It is something that he is proud of. His team looks at him as a leader, so he gets to learn the leadership skills.”

His mom, Lisa Bowen, said that she enjoys getting to watching her son play, but it can be nerve-racking. 

“My heart just goes up and down the whole time he is playing," she said.

"I am proud of the type of athlete that he is. He has gotten the spirit award many times because he understands that sportsmanship goes along with it. But, it really it is one of the greatest opportunities for all these individuals. It keeps them fit and keeps their minds strong. It gives them a sense of community. Some of these individuals can feel isolated at times, so it great that there is this community for them.”

When David Sharpe joined the team, he was unsure if he would fit it. He didn’t know how to play or what to do.

“I just kind of kept to myself, and didn’t really get it,” said Sharpe.

His mom, Cheryl Sharpe, said she has seen a big change as he has gotten more comfortable with the team and the sport.

“When he first started, he just stood around and didn’t know what to do. Now, he is one of the leaders and talk with the other players,” she said. “He just loves Special Olympics. It is a big opportunity for him. He comes out of his shell and meets new people. He gets together with the other athletes and people who are like him. He gets to stay in the dorm with the other athlete and he just really loves it.”

“Yeah, so now I am a team leader and I can help people,” said David Sharpe. “It is great.”

That seems to be what it is all about for these athletes, a chance to learn, play and grow while meeting new people. 

In between games the athletes are tired. They play two or more games a day in a new place with a lot of activity going on.
“I am really tired, we had a two games yesterday and another one later,” said Austin Bowen between games. “But I am going to go out there and try my best for my team.”


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