By Ethan Nahté
Orlando has over 5,000 visitors this week, and it’s not people in line to see Mickey and Minnie, although Disney is part of the festivities. Approximately 5,500 athletes from across the United States and the Caribbean will be participating in their various events Monday through Friday at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Florida this week. The one-of-a-kind opening ceremony was produced by Disney Live Entertainment and was reportedly the largest USA Games in Special Olympics history.
Two-time Grammy Award nominee Sara Bareilles sang and played piano at the opening ceremonies Sunday morning, along with 500 performers to get things rolling.
In addition to the Flame of Hope being carried in by Team Missouri’s Brett Harper and his lighting of the cauldron, there were several dance performances from Disney characters, speeches from Special Olympics dignitaries, and at the Amway Center, the Harlem Globetrotters came out on the court, interacted with the athletes, taught a couple of tricks and did what the Harlem Globetrotters do on the court.
Journalist T.J. Holmes, who gained national prominence as a host on CNN’s “Saturday & Sunday Morning,” is the host of this year’s Special Olympics. He currently co-hosts “GMA3: What You Need to Know,” part of the “Good Morning America” family. Holmes is a West Memphis, Arkansas native and University of Arkansas alumni, earning his bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism.
Nationwide, Special Olympics has approximately 19,000 athletes. Special Olympics Arkansas has a 144-member team made up of 98 athletes and unified partners plus 46 coaches. They will participate in 12 sports along with a six-delegation support staff, a Generation Unified Youth Summit, and a U.S. Ambassador Caucus. The entire experience for Team Arkansas will cost $220,00. The individuals that make up the team are not required to pay any money to participate. Athletes and the members of the delegation are encouraged to assist in all fundraising opportunities made available to the team over the course of the year.
Team Arkansas will compete in athletics, basketball, bocce, bowling, golf, powerlifting, soccer, softball, stand-up paddleboard, swimming, tennis, and the U.S. Ambassador & Youth Leadership.
Two athletes and a coach will be representing Polk County and Mena.
Krista Carstens will be competing on stand-up paddleboard at Lucky’s Lake. It’s a relatively new sport for the Special Olympics but has seen extraordinary growth over the past few years according to the official website. The site compares the sport to a mix of kayaking and surfing. Competitors navigate open waters and balancing on the board for either 800, 1,600, 3,200 or 4,800 meters, all with turns, as they make their way to the finish line. Carstens will compete in the 1,600 race.
Carstens has been to the USA Games and the World Games before in Abu Dhabi.
“I got to go there in 2019. I went to Seattle, and I got picked for World Games. I was there for a track and field event that time. I got two second places and I think, like a fourth-place ribbon.”
She ran in the 100-meter dash, 200 dash and the 1×400 relay. She was the only Arkansas selected to be part of Team USA in 2019.
If Carstens succeeds in Orlando this week, she said, “It will put me in availability to go to Germany. That’s World Games.”
The World Games are held every two years, with the Berlin games scheduled for June 17-24, 2023.
“I am a little nervous, but overly excited,” Carstens said with a laugh. “It feels wonderful,” she said about being chosen to go to Orlando. “I can’t wait to represent our state.”
Aarika Cox works for Mena High School as a paraprofessional. She runs the Special Olympics program for the district and helped to organize the 2022 Special Olympics Track and Field Day at the Bearcat Stadium on April 28. “I am going as a coach for the U.S. Youth Ambassadors and their unified care from Cabot, so I have one athlete and one partner. They’re going to go and encourage other people to get involved in Special Olympics and choose to include in their everyday life.
“This is my first trip [to nationals] and I am so excited to get to go. They’ve accomplished so much. Stand-up paddleboard is a new sport for Krista. She just took it on and has tackled it. She is doing so good at it. I really think she’s going to get gold when she goes.”
There are no places for Carstens to do her paddleboarding in the Mena area. Cox said, “We’ve gone once a month to Conway and had practices there as a whole team—Team Arkansas all together.”
Mena Police officer Steven Stout said, “She’s doing stand-up paddleboard. I’ve tried to stand in my kayak and it’s not working,” he said to the group of emergency and law enforcement personnel, along with the athletes and family members. “What Krista’s doing on her paddleboard, coming out of Mena, that’s pretty rocking awesome, too.
Maddie Fletcher is Mena’s second competitor. She has a busy schedule ahead of her, competing in swimming at the nationals once again. “This will be my second time going.” She said, “I am doing all of the strokes [100 individual relay]: butterfly, free, back, and breast. I’m doing the 100-yard backstroke, and I’m doing a 50 relay.”
The swimming competitions will take place at the Rosen Aquatic and Fitness Center. There are 34 different swim events at the 2022 games, and over 300 athletes swimming for gold.
Fletcher said with a very confident voice that she’s not nervous at all. “In 2018, I went to Seattle. I got first, second and third.”
“Maddie is like a fish. She swims faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. She just keeps getting better and better. She’s going to do good there,” Cox said.
Stout said, “This girl can swim!”
Fletcher is also a member of the Special Olympics Arkansas State Youth Activation Committee (SOAR YAC).
Stout said, “You two are really cool.” He asked the small crowd to give a round of applause for the athletes and “…especially for Erica. She has put a lot of effort into rebuilding the Special Olympics program here in Mena. She’s done a great job with it. She’s put a lot of heart into it. These athletes know that.”
The games originally required a COVID-19 screening questionnaire and a release waiver. After drawing controversy, the Special Olympics dropped a coronavirus vaccine mandate for its games last Friday after Florida moved to fine the organization $27.5 million for violating a state law against such rules.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “In Florida, we want all of them to be able to compete. We do not think it’s fair or just to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor or integrity.”
The Florida health department notified the Special Olympics of the fine in a letter Thursday that said the organization would be fined $27.5 million for 5,500 violations (a fine for each participant) of state law for requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for attendees or participants.
Florida law bars businesses from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. DeSantis has strongly opposed vaccine mandates and other virus policies endorsed by the federal government.
The Special Olympics stated on their website June 2 that delegates who were registered but unable to participate because of the mandate can now attend.
Florida has been seeing a rise in COVID cases throughout the end of May.
Unrelated, and before the announcement regarding the rescinding of the vaccination proof had been made, a request was made that Stout say a prayer of protection over them before they headed out on their journey. They were escorted out of town by a convoy of several law enforcement vehicles, along with two Southwest EMS ambulances and a fire truck with lights and sirens as the delegates headed for Little Rock.