Excitement was in the air recently as Special Olympics athletes practiced bocce at Kennison Field in Hermiston.
It provided the athletes with an opportunity to get a feel for artificial turf in preparation for the Special Olympics Oregon Summer Games, which are in July at Oregon State University. Kristi Smalley, communications manager for Hermiston/Pendleton Special Olympics Local Program #510, said the playing surface makes a difference in how the ball rolls.
Sally Nesselrodt’s smile was as bright as the red tank top and shorts she wore during the June 5 practice. The spry 81-year-old looped her arm through Shannon Raymond’s as they made their way to the other end of the court. Raymond not only provides Nesselrodt with assistance, they are teammates as they compete in the Special Olympics Unified Sports. In addition to having fun and promoting physical health, the program brings people together as it pairs Special Olympians with athletes without intellectual disabilities to compete with other Unified Sports teams.
Bocce was added as part of the local Special Olympics training program in 2008. The sport, Smalley said, provided opportunities for some athletes who found participating in some of the activities were too demanding due to age, vision impairments or ambulation difficulties.
“It was a godsend for our athletes that have mobility issues,” Smalley said.
On an adjacent bocce ball court, Lyall Arey, Jilli Smalley, Annie Garza and Mary Jones were attentive as head bocce coach Jessica Sexton gave direction. Jones also took on the role as a cheerleader, providing encouragement as others took turns throwing a bocce ball.
“Way to go Annie,” Jones said to her doubles teammate.
And, it didn’t matter to Jones if it was a teammate or a competitor who was approaching the line, she called out words of encouragement.
“I love how positive and encouraging they are,” said Jessica Sexton, head bocce coach. “There’s competition, but it’s clearly friendly.”
Misty Larsen, agreed, saying she likes competing with others. However, what she enjoys most is that it provides another opportunity for her to hang out with friends. She also serves as an athlete representative on the Special Olympics Council.
Lorraine Bance, who has worked with Larsen for 16 years through the Eastern Oregon Support Services Brokerage, said Larsen interacts well with others and likes reaching out to help her fellow athletes. Larsen, Bance said, takes her role very seriously.
“If an athlete has a dispute or a concern, Misty will report it in a meeting,” she said.
Larsen has participated in Special Olympics for more than 20 years, both in Umatilla and Wasco counties. Bance said that involvement has contributed to Larsen’s overall success and independence, including learning responsibilities and being organized.
Sexton first got involved with Special Olympics two years ago after Smalley shared about the program with Sexton’s parents. She started out coaching basketball. However, when Smalley found out Sexton was familiar with bocce, she recruited her as head coach for the sport.
A fifth grade teacher at Sunset Elementary School, Sexton is familiar with instructing others. While she didn’t participate in competitive bocce, Sexton has experience with the game through playing with her friends.
“It’s one of those things you keep learning as you go,” she said.
For information about participating or volunteering with Special Olympics, call local program coordinator Angela Scheider at 541-314-0166.