Annual Leadership Award Winners

Special Olympics Florida is thrilled to announce the winners of its annual Leadership Awards which honor service to the Special Olympics movement.

“Our Leadership Award winners are true champions of our athletes and our mission,” said Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock. “They embody the best of our movement and are committed to helping us build a world of inclusion, where people with intellectual disabilities are accepted and respected. We are honored to recognize them for their incredible contributions.”

The following awards were presented at Special Olympics Florida’s 2023 Champions Gala on October 28, at the Omni Resort Orlando at ChampionsGate.

Athlete of the Year

This award is presented to an athlete whose life exemplifies courage, generosity, joy, and athletic skill. They demonstrate superior leadership, dedication to teammates, sportsmanship, and a commitment to helping others.

This year’s honoree is Andrew Ahearn of Pasco County. Ahearn, an Athlete Leader and Health Messenger, has been part of Special Olympics Florida for more than 15 years. A talented and determined triathlete, he has competed in the Special Olympics USA Games, the World Games and the Special Olympics European Open in Slovakia. Ahearn volunteers regularly at SOFL competitions and fundraisers. He is the consummate teammate, cheering on and encouraging his fellow athletes at each and every event. He is a wonderful Special Olympics Florida ambassador.

Coach of the Year

This award is given to a coach who has shown sportsmanship, understanding and compassion in the truest spirit of coaching; has obtained certification in at least one sport; and is actively coaching Special Olympics Florida athletes. 

The 2023 Coach of the Year is Amos Spires of Washington County. Spires is a Tier 3 coach, overseeing multiple sports at the Washington Academy of Varying Exceptionalities (WAVE). He is deeply committed to the Special Olympics mission and to ensuring his athletes have the best experiences possible.

He was the catalyst for bringing Young Athletes, Little Elites, and Rising Stars to WAVE. He regularly gives athletes rides to and from competitions and, when his athletes were invited to compete in Navarre, he persuaded his school to pay for rooms near the water, saying, “they all grew up in Florida, but some of them have never seen the beach.” Spires’ heartfelt dedication to his athletes makes him an excellent choice for Coach of the Year.

Unified Partner of the Year

This award goes to a Unified partner who exemplifies an attitude of social inclusion and who is dedicated to improving the skills, fitness, confidence and friendships of our athletes. Unified partners are people without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics athletes.

The Unified Partner of the Year is Lance Duch. As a member of the University of Florida Special Olympics College Club, Duch has embraced the principle of “Play Unified, Live Unified.” Over the past three years, he has been a Unified partner in both basketball and flag football. He has served as vice president of UF’s SO College Club and organized weekly Unified intramural leagues, breaking down barriers and bringing together SOFL athletes and UF students. When his Unified team traveled to Germany for the Special Olympics World Games, Duch was the consummate partner, working to ensure his teammates would have an experience they would remember for the rest of their lives. Duch is a pre-med student at the University of Florida.

Sports Organization of the Year

This award recognizes sports organizations who have made major contributions to the mission of Special Olympics Florida and demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of Special Olympics athletes and all people with intellectual disabilities. 

The Florida High School Athletic Association is a champion of Special Olympics Florida. The organization has elevated our Unified Champion School teams, giving members the opportunity to be recognized as Varsity athletes. Through FHSAA, they compete at the highest levels, representing their schools in State Championships. This partnership is a powerful – and highly visible – reminder that Special Olympics Florida athletes are like any other athlete. All they really want is the opportunity to play and compete. For recognizing that, and for shining a spotlight on our athletes, the FHSAA is the Sports Organization of the Year.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver Award

This award is given to a person or company who has played a role in furthering the vision of our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Shriver was a pioneer in the worldwide struggle for rights and acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities. 

Our friends at Wawa and The Wawa Foundation are always looking for ways to support the athletes of Special Olympics Florida. And this year, we are incredibly proud – and grateful – to celebrate 11 amazing years as partners. During that time, Wawa and The Wawa Foundation have raised more than $1 million to support our athletes. From spearheading in-store promotions, to providing food and beverages at events, to serving as volunteers, Wawa’s team and its enthusiastic support have been instrumental in our expansion of services to 62,000 athletes. For its unwavering commitment to the athletes of Special Olympics Florida, Wawa and The Wawa Foundation are this year’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Award winner.

Media Organization of the Year

Presented to the media organization or agency whose year-round coverage and support has enhanced public awareness and highlighted the accomplishments of athletes, volunteers, or other aspects of the program.

WESH2, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, has been committed to supporting Special Olympics Florida through storytelling and coverage of competitions and fundraisers. But it’s gone even further. WESH anchors Jim Payne and Meredith McDonough have regularly served as masters of ceremonies for events such as Polar Plunge and our annual Champions Gala.

Jim also served as a longtime SOFL board before retiring in September. When he retired, McDonough took his place on the Special Olympics Florida Board. The station has gone out of its way to support our athletes, even offering studio time – and staff expertise – to produce training videos for our Athlete Leadership programs. We are proud to recognize WESH2 as our 2023 Media Organization of the Year.

“Our Leadership Award winners are true champions of our athletes and our mission,” said Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock. “They embody the best of our movement and are committed to helping us build a world of inclusion, where people with intellectual disabilities are accepted and respected. We are honored to recognize them for their incredible contributions.”

In addition to awards presented at the Gala, we presented several other Leadership Awards this fall.

Bill Crutchfield Award 

The Bill Crutchfield Award is presented to the volunteer who has demonstrated distinguished service and made a positive impact on the lives of people with and without intellectual disabilities. There are two Bill Crutchfield Award winners this year, Silvia Haas and Lenora Deonath.

Silvia Haas has volunteered for 20 years coaching three seasons a year – soccer, softball, and basketball. She is an active recruiter, regularly bringing new Unified partners and new coaches to our programs. She is deeply committed to empowering our athletes, helping them improve their communication skills and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect. A natural leader and compassionate mentor, Silvia has committed herself to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. 

Over the past 19 years, Lenora Deonath has become a fixture of Special Olympics Florida in Marion County. She is the volunteer who always seems to be exactly where she is needed. A coaching dynamo, Lenora coached the following sports in 2023 alone: basketball, cycling, volleyball, swimming, bowling, stand up paddle, and flag football. She provides endless support to our athletes, texting them reminders, providing rides, and assisting with paperwork. Lenora embodies everything that a volunteer should be.

Marilyn Grigsby Award

The Marilyn Grigsby Award is presented to an association, corporation, civic or fraternal group, business, agency, or school system that has provided sustained involvement, service, guidance, expertise, project management and or leadership over five or more years that has greatly impacted the program, volunteers or athletes.  We are honored to recognize Judy Moore’s Tennis for Fun with the 2023 Marilyn Grigsby Award. 

For more than two decades Judy Moore has been teaching the athletes of Special Olympics Florida tennis. Her Tennis for Fun free clinics are designed specifically to accommodate people with intellectual disabilities. Her programs have grown tennis throughout Hillsborough County and surrounding counties, giving our athletes the chance to improve their skills and gain confidence on – and off – the court. She is a gold-medal recruiter who helps us attract new coaches and volunteers and a kind and compassionate coach, who excels at helping our athletes understand they are capable of remarkable things.

Family of the Year

The Family of the Year Award recognizes the family who makes a unique and lasting contribution to the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through their involvement with Special Olympics Florida. 

Special Olympics Florida has been at the heart of the Alvarez family for more than 15 years. Logan and Maya began as children, giving up birthday parties to attend and volunteer with mom Jodi and dad Eddy at State Summer Games. The family turns out for every MATP event, assisting with planning and set up. 

Logan and Maya carried their commitment into high school, with Logan launching a Unified Champion Schools program and Maya starting an SO College program. The family even trained to become certified soccer coaches together. For their tireless efforts to champion the principles of inclusion and acceptance, the Alvarez family is our 2023 Family of the Year.