Special Olympics athletes, volunteers get creative to stay connected during pandemic

Virtual events have helped participants stay active and engaged

More than 200 teens are raising money and awareness for Special Olympics Virginia.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – More than 200 teams across the Commonwealth have signed up to take the Polar Plunge to raise money and awareness for Special Olympics Virginia.

The 2021 Plunge will happen with a twist: instead of teams in the New River Valley and Roanoke Valley jumping into the freezing New River in February, each team will get to decide on a safe, socially-distant but still cold way to participate.

The annual Polar Plunge supports the programs and mission of Special Olympics, which works to provide year-round sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

The pandemic has made fulfilling that mission more challenging, since Special Olympics Virginia for Areas 8 and 9, which represent the Roanoke Valley and New River Valley respectively, initially stopped in-person activities in March.

Athletes and volunteers have turned to virtual events and individual fitness challenges to stay together despite being physically apart.

“If we don’t keep our athletes and volunteers together, those connections will come apart, so that’s a lot of what we’ve been trying to work on,” said Nancy Morehouse, Southwest Region Director for Special Olympics Virginia.

Special Olympics athletes and volunteers have enjoyed virtual dance parties, Halloween-themed get-togethers and socially-distanced fitness competitions to stay connected during the pandemic. But for many athletes and volunteers, it doesn’t bring the same joy as in-person activities.

“For many of our athletes, well into adulthood, these last few months have been the first years they’ve missed some of the big milestones and annual events they compete in,” Morehouse said.

Some in-person sports, including bocce, happened this fall with strict COVID-19 protocols, but virtual events and in-person events that can be done in small, socially-distanced groups of people wearing masks will continue to be the types of activities athletes and volunteers can engage in for now.

“We don’t expect until late spring to be able to do any kind of team sport, but we hope to be able to do some individual skill kind of thing in our team sports,” Morehouse said.

Click here to learn more about the 2021 Polar Plunge and how to register or donate.