When the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship comes to town in Sioux City, Iowa, it doesn’t just bring 32 teams and 31 games in six days, it brings happiness and joy, not only to the players competing, but the community as well.
Of the NAIA’s partners of the Championship, Special Olympics Iowa, perhaps, creates the most impact. Every year since 1998, before tournament play begins, Special Olympians get a chance to take the court with players from NAIA schools competing in the Championship. Olivet Nazarene University sophomore forward Jess Learned shared her thoughts on the event.
“It’s really fun to be here at nationals to play basketball, obviously, but its super cool to serve these kiddos and adults that come out,” Learned said. “It’s really fun to get to participate in things in the community. These kids are loving it, so it brings joy to us to see them have fun today.”
For the 20th straight year, the Tyson Events Center hosted an event that saw youth and adults from the Sioux City area interact with members of teams participating in the 2017 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship, which begins on Mar. 8. Co-Tournament Director Corey Westra talked about the history between the National Championship and Special Olympics Iowa.
“The Special Olympics is a really big part of this tournament,” Westra said. “Ever since 1998, when we hosted our first basketball championship, we’ve done this event. . . It’s become a very important part of continuing every year of the tournament by having this. It’s great for our community. It’s great for the Special Olympians, they look forward to this.”
Various Championship teams volunteered to help out with the event, which included a plethora of stations with games and activities for the Special Olympians to partake in. Some of these games included: bean bag toss, duck-duck-goose, shooting free throws, and parachute.
The event was set up so that every NAIA team would partner with a group of Special Olympians. After 10 minutes or so, the groups would rotate to a different activity. Bruce Wilson, West Region Director of Field Services for Special Olympics Iowa and a long-time college basketball coach, got involved with Special Olympics Iowa because his son was born with down-syndrome. He spoke about what it means for the Special Olympians to participate in an event like this.
“This is an opportunity for our athletes to interact with college-talent type of athletes,” Wilson said. “We are all about trying to get our athletes out participating with everybody else. . . Just trying to make sure everybody knows what special talents our athletes have.”
This event is not just held during the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship, it is also held during the NAIA Women’s Volleyball Championship in the fall, as well. Twice a year, these Special Olympians get to interact with NAIA teams, and the turnout of the events is one aspect that continually impresses Westra.
“We had about 170 total kids today between the two sessions and I know our NAIA teams look forward to [the event] as well, It is a win-win for everybody,” Westra said.
While Championship play starts tomorrow, and it is sure to be a competitive week of basketball for the players, Learned hopes the Special Olympians felt the impact just as much as she did.
“To come to [the NAIA National Championship] is so fun. . . It is such an honor,” Learned said. “Whether [the Special Olympians] think that we are college basketball players or not, I just hope they feel that they are loved right now and that they are having fun playing basketball with their new friends that they just made.”