It was a normal day in April 2017 when I sat in my DeKalb High School classroom during my prep time, watching the announcement that my basketball team had been chosen to represent the State of Indiana at the USA Special Olympics Games. I could hardly believe it, and I had no idea what the next 14 months would entail.
In those 14 months my athletes and I would pull a plane (as a fundraiser), walk in a parade with the lieutenant governor at the state fair, play on the home courts of the Indiana Pacers and Fort Wayne Mad Ants, and get a tour of the Butler University field house. They would be outfitted for uniforms made just for them and with three pairs of shoes, which included a pair of red basketball “LeBrons.” This in itself was an honor, because many of them had been playing in cheap shoes from Wal-Mart and had experienced a number of ankle and leg problems.
Additionally, we were each given year-long passes to go to our local YMCA to get in shape. Our plan was simple, to outrun our competition.
Eventually, at the end of this past June we boarded a plane for Seattle to attend the Games. It was the first time flying for many of the athletes, and the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In Seattle, we walked across a beautiful campus lined with people cheering every state’s delegation in an amazing opening ceremony that people across the country could watch on ABC. Then we were able to go 6-0 in our bracket, the undefeated champs from “the basketball state” as we played teams from Hawaii, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Nevada. In the end, we were able to bring home the gold medal for the State of Indiana.
A highlight for me came after the gold-medal game. We went to a tent with our new friends from across the country. As we waited, one by one the members of each team left the tent to walk out on the stage and get his or her medal, with everyone cheering. The athletes in the tent swapped stories about their journey to Seattle, took pictures with one another, and shared pictures of the games that their families had shared with them.
We, of course, were last, since we were bringing home the gold. My team lined up to shake the Nevada team’s hands as they left the tent and wish them safe travels on the road home. A few minutes later, adorned with our medals around our necks, we exited the stage. We then reunited with the team from Nevada and the one from Arkansas (the silver and bronze teams). We decided to all line up to take a picture. After it had been taken, one of the athletes started chanting “USA, USA, USA!” Before long, everyone joined in. I found myself tearing up with pride for all of the people who had made it to compete at these Special Olympic Games, and it finally sank in what we had done.
It still amazes me what we accomplished in just over a week on the West Coast. Since we have been back, our community and our state have been celebrating our victory, and I’m sure it will continue. We have been invited to the governor’s mansion in Indianapolis to help christen a brand-new basketball court and went to an Indianapolis Colts game, where we got to be on the sidelines before the game. Who knows what’s next for these 10 athletes and three coaches from northern Indiana?
This team wasn’t selected because they were the best athletes in the state. They were selected because they are men and women of character and high morals who would represent Indiana well. Who knew they were capable of winning a national gold medal, too?
Carol Fike is a member of Pleasant Chapel Church of the Brethren, Ashley, Ind., and a special education teacher at DeKalb High School in Auburn, where she coaches Special Olympics and Unified Sports teams. She previously served in Brethren Volunteer Service.