An Extraordinary Year

Dear Champions,

For Special Olympics Florida, 2020 was an extraordinary year. The challenges were great, but so were the achievements. Below, we have included some of the highlights. I hope you find them as inspiring as we do.

Virtual Programming
online class

When COVID-19 forced Special Olympics Florida to suspend in-person events, our team jumped into brainstorming mode, thinking of new, virtual programs to serve our athletes and families. Those included:

  • Fit 5 Like a Pro: Olympic and professional athletes teamed up with Special Olympics Florida to provide 30-days of virtual challenges to motivate our athletes to get moving. Pros included Olympic track & field sprinter, Justin Gatlin, Miami Heat Forward-Center, Myers Leonard, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tight End, Cameron Brate.
  • Couch to 5K: A nine-week training program that, through a regimen of walking and running, prepares athletes to complete a 5K.
  • Home Fitness: A nine-week program that focuses on cardio health, strength training, and functional fitness.
  • Virtual Miles: A nine-week program that tracks the weekly miles run, walked, biked, or rolled by each athlete. Designed for athletes of all levels, the program tallies total miles and adds them to an individual or team total. Notably, Special Olympics Florida athlete Billy Klingensmith cycled an astonishing 3,521 miles as part of the Amerithon Challenge.
  • Virtual Youth Leadership Summit: This half-day conference featured an all-star lineup of game changers from sports, entertainment, business and culture. Guests included Mindy Dentler, an Ironman wheelchair athlete, Daniel Tammet, a best-selling author with autism, Justin Gallegos, the first professional athlete with cerebral palsy to be signed by Nike, and Special Olympics International Chairman Timothy Shriver.

When conditions allowed in September, we again began offering in-person training in some sports (we started with golf and tennis). Coaches received extensive instruction on how to run practices consistent with COVID-19 safety protocols, and all participants were required to adhere to a COVID-19 Code of Conduct. For athletes who were not yet ready to return to in-person training, we continued to offer virtual options.

image of the Healthy Athletes logo featuring multicolored spheres with black reversed icons

Our Health & Fitness team focused on wellness programs delivered via Zoom, social media, and phone calls.

  • We conducted 6,326 virtual screenings across all Healthy Athletes disciplines, including Fit Feet, FUNfitness, Healthy Hearing, Health Promotion, Opening Eyes, Special Smiles, MedFest, and Strong Minds.
  • We piloted a virtual screening program for Special Olympics International, using Zoom to connect athletes with medical professionals who answered questions and discussed any health concerns the athlete had.
  • We used social media and Zoom to conduct weekly emotional wellness sessions, organize fitness challenges, offer nutrition tips, share healthy recipes, and play games. The sessions provided valuable information but, just as importantly, helped our athletes and their families feel connected during a time when many were limiting their social contacts. Our Fit and Well Facebook group, started in response to COVID-19, now has 1,300 members.

We also modified our organizational structure, shifting from a county-centric approach to a regional strategy that better supports the tremendous growth of our programs over the last decade. The regional strategy is designed to:  

  • Enhance quality of competition  
  • Increase focus on each of our unique programs  
  • Elevate stewardship  
  • Promote brand alignment  
  • Support continuity through a team-based organizational structure 

Family Action Network

Families are at the core of Special Olympics Florida, so this year we created the Family Action Network. The Network includes all those people who surround and support our athletes -– the parents, siblings, grandparents, guardians, and caretakers who serve as champions for our mission. The network exists to:

  • Honor families as indispensable to our movement
  • Build connections between Special Olympics Florida families
  • Provide families with news and information about events and opportunities
  • Train Family Messengers to become advocates for our organization
  • Develop products and resources to improve the lives of our families
  • Encourage new families to join Special Olympics Florida

Our goal is to build the Family Action Network into an invaluable statewide resource for our families.

Special Olympics Florida Athlete Makes History

Special Olympics Florida athletes know they can achieve remarkable things if they are just given the opportunity, and Chris Nikic showed the world just how true that is.

Chris, a triathlete from the Orlando area, made history in November when he became the first person with Down syndrome ever to complete a full Ironman competition. Chris finished the Ironman Florida race -– a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run -– in 16:46:09.  His accomplishment made worldwide news, with Chris’ story being picked up by ESPN, the national network news, The New York Times and many other outlets.

Special Olympics Florida has known for years how dedicated and talented Chris is. In fact, we created our triathlon program in 2018 specifically to give athletes like Chris an opportunity to test themselves.

Today, our triathlon team is an impressive and inspiring combination of athletes and Unified partners. In November, those 20 team members were informed they all would be participating in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, hosted right here in Florida.  It is sure to be a life-changing experience.

The programs and achievements outlined above would not have been possible without the continued support of our sponsors and donors. They are not immune to the economic impacts of the pandemic, yet their commitment to our mission has never wavered. They stood with us throughout 2020, and, for that, we are incredibly grateful.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to remember those who are no longer with us.  Special Olympics Florida is a statewide family, and our hearts ache when we lose a member of that family.  Today, we honor their memory and their legacy.

Thank you again for being part of our mission.  In 2021, we will continue our efforts to create a world of inclusion and acceptance.

Sherry Wheelock
President & CEO, Special Olympics Florida