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Athletes Gear Up for The Special Olympics!

Balance 180 has made into another article in The Independent Alligator! Check it out!


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Young athletes will have the chance to shine at Alachua County’s first Special Olympics this weekend.

Rooted on by UF cheerleaders, Olympic torchbearer Jillian Roberts and the mayor of Gainesville, disabled preschool- and elementary-aged children will perform athletics including running, jumping and throwing, said event coordinator Krista Vandenborne.

The Special Olympics will take place at St. Francis Catholic High School, 4100 NW 115th St., from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

The program is being hosted by Balance 180, an organization founded this year by two UF professors. Vandenborne, the chairwoman of UF’s Department of Physical Therapy, is among the professors who helped found Balance 180.

She said the young athletes — ages 2 through 7 with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy — have been preparing for the event all semester with training sessions.

At the bi-weekly practices, children cycled through different stations set up inside a gym equipped with exercise mats, balls and other tools to work on basic skills like balance.
“They learn how to jump, how to use a racket, how to kick a ball,” Vandenborne said. “We teach them motor skills but also work on cognitive components. There’s lots of high-fives and lots of hugs, cheering each other on.”

She said combining counting, shapes and spatial concepts like “under” and “over” with physical therapy exercises strengthens the children’s minds and bodies at the same time.
Vandenborne said the athletes inspire her with their resolve and spirit. She said one in particular, 7-year-old Zavion, stood out in her mind.

“He’s in a wheelchair,” she said. “He’s one of those bright, shiny kids. He loves to dance.”
After practice, Vandenborne said, the children love to dance to “Gangnam Style.” Two volunteers held Zavion up so he could stand beside his wheelchair and groove to the music.

This is the first year the nationwide program has been offered in Alachua County, and Vandenborne said she thinks it’s a fit for Gainesville.

“I think we’re a perfect town to do it,” she said. “Sports are a big deal in Gainesville. A lot of times the ways we socialize are through sports, and it’s the same for children with disabilities.”

Sijun Li, a 20-year-old public relations junior who has been doing advertising for the event, said assisting with the Special Olympics has been satisfying.

“It’s really rewarding to know the kids are going to have such an amazing event to showcase all the hard work they’ve put into the training sessions,” she said. “They have a lot of talent to show.”

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