The Payson Special Olympics team, along with similar squads around the country, would like to permanently squelch the R-word from American vocabularies.
The campaign, which began two months ago when the local team participated in the Special Olympics summer games at Mesa Community College, is geared to help people understand how hurtful it is when the word “retarded” is used.
Officially, the campaign is known as “being a fan of respect, acceptance, unity, passion, humanity.”
Local Special Olympics coach, teacher and coordinator Ruby Lane says, attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities are framed by negative stereotypes and misconceptions, but when fans see Special Olympics athletes in competition, their attitudes quickly change.
Most observers, Lane says, develop a newfound respect and admiration for the athletes’ courage and what they accomplish on the playing field.
Such was the case at Mesa College, where Payson’s contingent of 30 athletes joined hundreds of others from around the state to participate in track and field and gymnastics.
Lane says the team turned in a commendable showing with many earning medals.
With track season at an end, the Payson team is now participating in swimming, and practices two days each week at Taylor Pool.
“Late this year we will have bowling and bocce,” Lane said. “During the winter, we have speed skating, figure skating and snowshoeing.”
Part of a new mission among Special Olympics athletes and coaches is to educate people about the dignity and gifts of all people.
Special Olympics now has several sports outreach programs designed to change attitudes and teach sensitivity and understanding about intellectual disabilities.
Lane says everyone can help out by taking the R-word pledge to not use the word “retard” to put others down.
String of successes
Payson has a long history of producing highly successful Special Olympics teams.
On March 28 at Mesa Red Mountain High School, 16 Payson athletes turned out to compete in the Arizona State Individual Skills Basketball competition.
The Payson contingent showed well, winning several medals competing against a 175-person qualifying field.
At the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games, local speed skater Christine Sexton won a gold medal.
Also this year, the foursome of Heather Werlinger, Annie Spencer, Ken Bonn and Gary Boon qualified for the Special Olympics United National Bowling Tournament in Las Vegas.
A year ago, Payson sent the unified team of John Sexton, David Frohme, George Karrys, R.D. Nielsen, Chad Torgenson and Bonn to the inaugural Swim, Bike and Run Special Olympics Triathlon in Tucson.
The teams successes over the years comes as no surprise to longtime Special Olympics coordinator Becky Derwort, a retired Payson High School special education teacher.
“They work and practice very hard, that’s why they do well,” she said.
Both Derwort and Lane have extended an invitation for volunteers to join in the local Special Olympics movement as a coach or in some other duty. For more information, call Derwort at (928) 474-9142 or Lane at (928) 472-7619.