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They’re back! Giants ready to hit some pins

Special Olympics team returns with COVID precautions in place

By Fiona Edberg - Staff Writer | Aug 29, 2021

The Giants Special Olympics team loves to support each other during bowling tournaments. Above, Rosemary Szymanski and Jamie Mewhirter sit together at the state bowling tournament in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept these athletes apart for the past year, but now the Faribault County Giants Special Olympics Team is excited to announce their return for the fall bowling season.

Head of delegations Sheryl Aukes admits it was difficult for the Giants to be unable to practice together for so long.

“The athletes were OK with it, but they really missed each other,” says Aukes. “They’ve created some really good bonds.”

Aukes continues, “It really is about the social part.”

The team consistently prioritizes comradery and good sportsmanship both in practice and in tournaments.

“For bowling, the players can get a score of 39 and they will high-five each other,” Aukes shares. “Some of the guys are quite competitive, but all is in fun.”

The Giants’ love of supporting one another may, in fact, be one of the most difficult parts about adjusting to newly-instated COVID-19 restrictions.

“The biggest thing is, they like to give high-fives and be in close proximity to each other,” admits Aukes.

Aukes also explains wearing a mask may be challenging for some athletes due to the nature of their disability.

Nonetheless, Aukes is ready to meet the challenges of the pandemic if it means the Giants are able to pick up where they left off before the pandemic hit.

Aukes shares precautions the team will take to keep participants safe include masking up, limiting the number of people at events to under 50, following COVID-19 protocol such as temperature-taking and screening questions, and practicing social distancing.

Aukes will guide the athletes through COVID-19 safety procedures. For example, she will set clear guidelines regarding what social distancing looks like.

“We will tell athletes, ‘Somebody is bowling right now, so we need to be back here,'” Aukes explains.

Aukes shares the athletes and their families have mixed feelings about the upcoming bowling season. “Eight athletes have confirmed they definitely want to be a part of it,” Aukes says. “Seven are for sure not coming back. We are waiting to hear back from the rest.”

During previous seasons, the Giants team has had 23 athletes consistently.

For now, Aukes remains hopeful that the Faribault County area will remain an ‘orange zone’ in regards to pandemic spread. It is when the area becomes a ‘red zone’ that all activities and organizations, such as the Special Olympics, need to be suspended for the safety of the participants.

“As of right now, our bowling tournament will be at the Wow Zone in Mankato, on Nov. 21 or 22, if we don’t go in the red zone,” explains Aukes.

If things go as planned, the team will begin practicing for the tournament on Sept. 19, when their first bowling practice is scheduled at the Lucky Lanes Bowling Alley in Winnebago. The team typically practices on Sundays.

COVID-19 safety procedures will be key to the success of this year’s Special Olympics seasons. However, the help of volunteers is key to the organization’s success each and every year.

“We always need help getting more athletes and more coaches,” Aukes shares.

Coaching the Giants is a great opportunity for community members of all ages.

“Three of my grandchildren are coaches,” Aukes says. “The two oldest are level two coaches, and my grandson is a level one coach.”

Two of Aukes’s grandchildren, Jazmyn Lunz and Blair Lunz, are in high school, but they have been coaching since third grade. Her other grandson, Payten Sorbel, is a fifth grader.

Aukes explains coaches help with many aspects of practices and events, from set-up, to helping record times at events, to providing expertise about the sport being played.

“Brenda Smith is my number-one coach,” Aukes says. Smith is a special education physical education teacher in the Blue Earth Area School District. She is able to provide knowledge about the sports being played that Aukes does not have herself.

Aukes urges community members to reach out to her or to Smith if they are interested in either signing up an athlete, or volunteering as a coach.

“Coach training is done all online,” explains Aukes. “Any age can help out.”

As for the age requirement for participants, athletes are eligible once they turn eight years old and can continue participating as senior citizens.

“As long as you’re able to move,” Aukes laughs. “In Fairmont, there were quite a few who used walkers to participate in track and field.”

Interested community members can call Aukes at 507-525-4489, or Smith at 507-525-1110. Either individual can provide prospective athletes with paperwork, or direct prospective coaches to the online training.

Aukes also encourages those interested in coaching to visit the Special Olympics website at specialolympicsminnesota.org

While the Giants will start with a season of bowling, if restrictions allow they will continue on to a season of basketball starting in January, followed by a track and field season in the spring.

Aukes, as always, is excited to see the athletes reap the benefits of a program like the Special Olympics.

“It’s for them to keep building their social bonds,” Aukes explains. “Exercise is also very important for them.”

Aukes continues, “My favorite part is the smiles on their faces. There isn’t one who isn’t happy to participate in sports.”

She adds, “These athletes can participate as well as any other athlete can. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about playing.”

Indeed, the Special Olympics’s motto is: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”