Words by Rebecca Parsons

Standup paddling truly is a sport for everyone.

While Special Olympics Florida was established back in 1972, Collier County became the first Special Olympics program in the world to add SUP to their agenda in 2010. Now, they cater to over 15,000 athletes, including 25 standup paddlers, ranging from ages 10 to 37. We recently spoke with marketing director Becky Newell about the mission of this amazing company, the benefits of SUP for participants and what it was like to have one of their athletes compete at the national Special Olympics event for the first time. –RP

Photo courtesy of Special Olympic Florida

What is your mission?

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. This gives them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

When did you first add SUP to your program?

In May 2010, Collier County was the first Special Olympics program to introduce its athletes to SUP. That year, local athletes were able to try out the sport in a non-competitive setting. Over the next several years, Special Olympics athletes were invited to participate in a growing number of SUP events in Florida.

Photo courtesy of Special Olympic Florida

By 2015, SUP had become an official Special Olympics Florida sport and the first ever state competition was held. The number of participating Florida counties increases every year and several other states have also added the sport.

Has the program grown over the last couple years?

The program has grown steadily over the years, not only in the number of athletes participating, but also in the ability levels of those who have been part of the program for multiple years. Special Olympics athletes compete at different levels, based on the distance of the race. Many of our local athletes have steadily moved up through the levels.

Photo courtesy of Special Olympic Florida

Tell us about this year's Area 9 Standup Paddle Competition?

The first-ever Area 9 SUP Competition was held in August of 2015. That was the first year that the sport was an official Special Olympics Florida sport. Adding a new Special Olympics sport is a rigorous process and several Collier County volunteers were instrumental in adding SUP as an option for Special Olympics Florida athletes. This year, athletes from Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties participated in the Area 9 SUP Competition.

How do you ensure participant safety throughout the event?

We emphasize safety over everything else. At the beginning of every season, every athlete must pass a 25-meter swim test, both with and without a life jacket. Everyone on the water at our SUP practices and competitions wears a PDF and uses a leash at all times.

Photo courtesy of Special Olympic Florida

We also have a large number of certified Special Olympics SUP coaches and we have coaches who are certified lifeguards as well. We always maintain a high ratio of coaches to athletes on the water so that someone is always watching every athlete and is able to respond immediately in case of any problem.

Did you have any athletes participate at the national Special Olympics this year?

That competition took place in early July in Seattle, and one Collier athlete, Vivy Pantoja, was a member of Team Florida. She earned a bronze medal at USA Games! Three Collier SUP coaches were also part of the competition: MJ Weibling was the Technical Delegate for the SUP competition, Stephanie Dangler was Head Water Official and Meg Bosi was Head Official/Starter.

Why is paddling a beneficial sport for athletes with special needs? 

Besides the obvious improvements in balance and strength that anyone can get from participating in SUP, we see dramatic increases in confidence levels among our SUP athletes. Many people have no idea this is even a Special Olympics sport and they would never have even thought of introducing the sport to athletes with intellectual disabilities. It's always a good thing when Special Olympics athletes can show that they're capable of doing all kinds of things. There's no better way to get rid of stereotypes and break down barriers than to show that you can do the unexpected!

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