Lake Worth couple put the ‘special’ in Special Olympics

By Faran Fagen, The Post

During track events at the Special Olympics, athletes wait for the competition so they can finish together. For each sport, athletes cheer for all victors when they get their awards. One athlete collected every color of ribbon and medal, so he had a complete set.

“There have been times when we’ve been overcome with emotion, tears to our eyes, watching our athletes compete or receive their awards on the podium,” said Nancy Howard, of Lake Worth. “We know how hard they’ve worked during practice and the effort to finish their event.”

Howard has taught special education at North Grade Elementary School in Lake Worth for 30 years. But in her spare time, she and husband, Michael, are volunteer coaches for Florida Special Olympics.

The Howards joined the Special Olympics Florida team in 2008 and have taken pleasure in working with athletes in softball, surfing, bowling, basketball, track and field, and open water swim teams.

Howard got involved after her boss at the time, North Grade Elementary Principal Debbie Battles, asked whether she wanted to start a program for her students since she was always looking for ways to incorporate sports into daily activities.

Her husband, a retired construction coordinator of 37 years for Palm Beach County Water Utilities also wanted in, and Team Howard was formed. Right away, they both loved watching their athletes improve and gain confidence on and off the field.

“I got involved by going to a track and field competition that my wife had three female athletes competing in,” said Michael Howard, who attended Lantana Elementary, Lantana Middle and graduated from Lake Worth High in 1976. “It was amazing to see the joy the athletes had competing with each other.”

For the first time in a dozen years, however, the Howards weren’t able to cheer on their athletes in April, which happens to be National Volunteer Month. In response to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and with the guidance from Special Olympics International, the organization canceled all Special Olympics Florida sports training and competition activities through May. When it is deemed safe to do so, and if possible, they will attempt to reschedule any canceled competitions.

“I know Special Olympics Florida continues to monitor this situation closely and will reevaluate further event activities and schedules,” Howard said. “While this news is disappointing, we are all so grateful for those that continue to show their support.”

Normally at this time of year, the Howards are frantically preparing a multitude of logistics for Team Howard.

Setting up practices at local facilities is a huge task. For example, track and field practice is at Lake Worth High School; softball is at John Prince Park; surfing is at Lake Worth Beach; open water swim is at the YMCA; basketball is at the Special Olympics Palm Beach County Therapeutic Center; and bowling is at Greenacres Bowl. They must notify Special Olympics staff, coaches, volunteers, parents and athletes via emails, texts and phone calls about the practice schedules.

The Howards also work to provide transportation for at least five athletes; buy equipment for athletes; and take care of a plethora of paperwork for each athlete.

Although it’s hard for him to choose, Michael Howard’s favorite sport to coach is surfing.

“It’s awesome to see their progress,” he said. “When they first started, they didn’t think they could do it and now they are standing up on the surfboard. It takes a lot of hard work during practice to do well at competition.”

Howard loves coaching all sports, and she’s always looking for additional sports to add for Team Howard.

 “It’s exciting to watch them learn new skills, make new friends, ‘shine’ during competition and go places they may never have had the opportunity to experience if they weren’t involved with Special Olympics Palm Beach County/Florida,” she said.

Some highlights from the Howards’ coaching careers include being selected to coach the National Games bowling teams for Team Florida in New Jersey in 2014 and in Seattle in 2018. They still keep in touch by text or email with several of their National Games athletes and their families.

In 2010, two athletes from Team Howard were selected to compete in the National Games in Nebraska.