Pin bustin’ will be the challenge for a four-person Payson team bound for the Special Olympics Unified National Bowling Tournament in the city with no clocks.
Heather Werlinger, Annie Spencer, Ken Bonn and Gary Boon will be among the contingent of almost 300 Special Olympics bowling teams expected to descend Feb. 18-20 on the 60-lane Cashman Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nev.
In preparation for the competition, the team has been practicing each Friday since last September at Rim Country Lanes.
“The team is very excited about going, we are going to meet people from all around the country,” said Spencer, a longtime local Special Olympics volunteer coach. “It will be a time for us to learn and grow.”
Werlinger, a Special Olympics athlete, said she was going to Las Vegas in hopes of improving on her best score ever, a 148.
The Unified Partners program is relatively new to Northern Gila County Special Olympics. The current bowling squad is only the second Unified Team that Payson has sent to national competition.
Special Olympics coordinator and coach Becky Derwort explains the program as one in which “disabled individuals are partnered with non-disabled individuals for competitions, which allows athletes with and without disabilities to train and compete on the same team.”
The benefit of adding Unified Sports to the local Special Olympics offerings, Derwort said, is that it helps athletes learn new sports, develop higher-level skills, form friendships and learn to play a valued role on a team.
State Special Olympic officials said the idea of combining athletes with and without disabilities on one team was first introduced in the mid-1980s to provide another level of challenge for higher ability Special Olympics athletes and to promote equality and inclusion.
Today, Unified Sports has expanded to include most all Special Olympics offerings.
Derwort’s goal is to expand the Unified Sports program to include more athletes and other sports.
The challenge she and the other Special Olympics coaches must overcome, she said, is finding enough volunteers to staff the new program.
“We do need help with our mission of providing year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities,” she said.