Special Olympics Summer Games foster independence and inclusiveness

Matt Maillelle practices with his basketball team ahead of this weekend’s summer Special Olympics. (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

At the last practice before the 2018 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games, Matt Maillelle leads his basketball teammates in a series of group stretches. He wears a Golden State Warriors jersey with star player Steph Curry’s number 30 on the back. He and his teammates start shooting layups and move through a series of warm-up exercises.

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Maillelle smiles and rebounds the ball with ease. He makes a difficult shot and his teammates cheer. This is his 23rd year competing in the Special Olympics. Both his parents played sports, and he started competing when he was eight years old.

“It’s about meeting new friends and competing against some other people,” Maillelle said. “I compete against some friends (that) I haven’t seen for a long time.”

Matt Maillelle shoots a layup at the last practice before this weekend’s games. Basketball events take place Saturday and Sunday at Dimond High School. (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Nearly 300 athletes and unified partners from across the state will compete at the games in Anchorage this weekend. Unified partners are people without intellectual disabilities that train and compete alongside Special Olympics’ athletes. Athletes will compete in basketball, track and field, gymnastics, power lifting and swimming.

The events kick-off on Friday, June 8 at East High School Auditorium with live entertainment and a speech from Olympic snowboarder Rosie Mancari. All events are free and open to the public.

“It’s about sports. Sports brings people of all abilities together,” Special Olympics Alaska director of communications and development Jessica Bjornstad said. “The athlete’s oath is let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Special Olympics Alaska hosts four statewide events a year. Throughout the year, 11 communities also hold their own regional events. Athletes compete for a chance to head to state and later nationals. The games are about competition, but they’re also about bringing together athletes from across the state and fostering independence and inclusiveness.

This weekend athletes will also have an opportunity to get free dental, eye and fitness exams through the healthy athletes program.

“One of our core values at Special Olympics is health is our commitment,” Bjornstad said. She said the health screenings are provided by different health care professionals across Anchorage.

Ayesha Abdul-Jillil practices shot put ahead of this weekend’s summer games in Anchorage. (Photo by Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Veteran athlete Ayesha Abdul-Jillil trains for the Special Olympics year-round. Abdul-Jillil has been competing since 2001 when she first got involved through a school program that brought together students with and without disabilities to play sports.

Abdul-Jillil competes in bowling in the fall, snowshoeing in the winter and track and field in the summer. She said playing sports has helped her gain independence.

“I’m excited about being out there competing, beating my times in my races and seeing all my friends from the different communities,” Abdul-Jillil said.

Abdul-Jillil will be reading the athlete’s oath in front of a crowd of hundreds at the opening ceremonies. And then, in July, both she and Maillele will head to nationals in Seattle as part of a team of 25 Alaskan athletes and unified partners.

“I’m looking forward to bringing home the gold and doing my personal best,” Abdul-Jillil said.

After that, it’s time to start training for the fall.