By Gerald Hay
Athletes of all ages are the heart of Special Olympics.
They train together, enjoy friendship and social interaction together, and have lots of fun together.
Johnson County has five Special Olympics programs that are part of Special Olympics Kansas. They are the Olathe Trailblazers, Gardner Gold, Spring Hill Sharks, Blue Valley Blue Streaks, and the Stormin’ Rangers of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, which has had a Special Olympics team for almost three decades.
Special Olympians in the JCPRD program come in all shapes and sizes, ages, sporting interests, and athletic abilities.
“Any person with an intellectual or developmental disability is welcome to participate. We hold skills assessments at the beginning of each sport season and place athletes on a team where they will be most successful,” said Lise Dujakovich, Special Populations/Special Olympics coordinator at JCPRD.
International Special Olympics was created on Aug. 2, 1968, under the leadership of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s sister. The organization supports athletes with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), and their families, with year-round sports training and athletic competitions tailored to the ability and age level of each athlete.
JCPRD’s Special Populations program began in 1969 with a grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation for a full-day summer day camp for local children with IDD. In 1995, an agreement was made to transfer Shawnee Mission School District's Special Olympics to JCPRD. The team was called the Rangers. In mid-2022, the Stormin’ Rangers team was formed when the Shawnee Storm Special Olympics team merged with JCPRD.
Special Olympics has few requirements for its athletes. They must be at least 8 years old and, as with all programs, there is paperwork! They do not age out of the programs with many athletes participating for decades.
Bill Story is the oldest Stormin’ Ranger at 81. He competes far less often nowadays as an athlete (his favorite sport is softball) and coaches and volunteers far more often with younger generations of Special Olympians.
“It has kept me busy since 1974,” he quipped.
Story was inducted in the Kansas Special Olympics Hall of Fame in 1984.
John Sebastian, 68, plays bocce from his wheelchair. He has enjoyed a long relationship with Carol Jackson, 71, who prefers swimming along with their shared interest in bocce.
Lisa Elsener, 54, has been a Special Olympian since she was an 8-year-old swimmer. She participates in basically every Special Olympics sport imaginable and excells in most of them. The list includes swimming, basketball, volleyball, soccer, cheerleading, speed and figure skating, bowling, golf, and track and field. Elsener has run more than a score of marathons and triathlons.
“I don’t do baseball or softball,” she said with a smile.
Elsener has won numerous ribbons and medals, including top gold, silver, and bronze awards in state, national and world games. She was a Hall of Fame inductee in 1990.
Ron Maybell, 55, another Hall of Famer (1989), has enjoyed bowling since 1975, one of the most popular sports in Special Olympics.
He began bowling when he was 14-15, leading to his participation in Special Olympics. Over about 34 years, he has competed in softball, track and field, and other sports, but with only a secondary interest.
“I like to knock down pins,” Maybell said. “I love bowling because it's my favorite thing to do and it's my favorite sport. I'm so proud to be a good bowler.”
He will be one of the Stormin’ Rangers at the State Bowling Tournament in August at Park Lanes, Shawnee, and Olathe Lanes East Bowling Center.
There are 22 seasonal Special Olympics sports, ranging from racewalking and bocce ball, to team sports, including basketball, softball, soccer, and softball.
Midway through a sport season, Special Olympics Kansas usually plans a one-day metro competition for local programs/teams to compete for medals and ribbons. At the end of each sport season, a statewide competition spanning two or three days, attracts hundreds of athletes from throughout Kansas. The most recent State Summer Games had 1,100 athletes competing.
Special Olympics activities are competitive, but not all or nothing. Winning always remains a personal goal, but athletes simply doing their best is what matters. That is echoed in a motto that Special Olympians say before every tournament or competition. It says: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Twenty-two Stormin’ Rangers competed in track and field, soccer, and cycling competitions during the 2023 Special Olympics Kansas Summer Games in Maize, Kan., near Wichita, this past June.
At 62, Pam Clair was the oldest team member as a race walker. She also earned a gold medal in her softball field event this year.
“Meeting all the people and getting to know them,” Clair said when asked what she liked the most about her long participation in Special Olympics.
Seven members formed the JCPRD soccer team, including Abe Eastman, 51, who was inducted into the Kansas Special Olympics Hall of Fame in 2020. He has been competing in Special Olympics events for more than four decades, saying he likes “being busy and active.” The Stormin’ Rangers soccer team earned a silver medal at the State Summer Games.
Five Stormin’ Rangers competed in cycling events, including Kyle Jenkins, 30. He lost his eyesight about five years ago in an accident and was the only bind cyclist at the Maize event.
“I hope I don’t fall,” he said, noting a three-wheeled bicycle can tip over if making turns too quickly or sharply.
Jenkins joined the team about a year ago. His first sport was bowling. For his cycling training, JCPRD purchased a portable sound system (beeper system) for him to work on sound localization (voice or beeper) and participate in both cycling and bocce.
A volunteer as a side walker also helps to guide Jenkins in cycling training and competition by providing verbal directions.
“Kyle is personable and funny – making it very easy to work with him and cheer him on,” Dujakovich said. She was his side walker at the state games. He didn’t fall. Jenkins received a bronze medal in both the 500m and 1,000m races at the State Summer Games in his first year of competition.
Sean McMahon, 33, another cyclist, has been with the JCPRD Special Olympics since 1997, starting when he was 8 years old and playing T-ball. Over the years, he has trained and participated in more than 13 sports amassing a bountiful collection of medals and ribbons, although cycling remains his favorite sport and competition.
His parents are Jodie and Jim McMahon, who have volunteered for many Special Olympics events and coached athletes in many different sports for nearly three decades.
Families are the number one fans of Special Olympics athletes.
“There is nothing more rewarding for us than working with our athletes and seeing them smile and experience joy doing something they love,” Jodie McMahon said. “It is a way for us to give back to an organization that has given us so much and fulfilled our desire for Sean to have a full and happy life.”
Jim and Elaine McClanahan agreed. They coached the cycling program for “about 35 years of pure joy” before retiring from coaching two years ago. Both remain active volunteers and supporters of Special Olympics.
The couple’s sons, 49-year-old Mike and Jeff McClanahan, 47, started competing in Special Olympics in Oklahoma and joined the JCPRD Special Olympics program after the family moved to Johnson County in 1984.
“Time-after-time, Mike and Jeff have proved the doctors wrong! They have far exceeded expectations. After many years we quit looking for the ‘whys’ and began to enjoy who they are. God designed them to teach us to love unconditionally and to forgive quickly and completely. They are loved by all who know them and are known for their hugs ... and their singing,” Elaine McClanahan said.
“There is no better support group than the parents in Special Olympics! We have shared many experiences that others can't understand. We continue to grow as parents and advocates long after our children graduate. It is a life-long blessing.”
Gerald Hay is a communications specialist in the Johnson County Manager’s Office.