Special Olympics club aims high

Special Olympics club aims high

04/11/2024 

On Wednesday nights at SUNY Cortland, you can find a group of athletes developing their physical prowess.

You might catch one celebrating a victory, one arm pumping a fist while the other holds a metal baton in the other. You might notice coaches laying down cones, grinning with anticipation as they mark off a landing area for their athletes. You may even see a head down with disappointment after an underwhelming rep, all to be consoled and encouraged for the next one.

No, this isn’t a Cortland varsity track and field practice. The energy and dedication displayed, however, are more than comparable.

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Special Olympics track competitors at last year's meet are urged on by Cortland Stars members (Image by C.J. Johnson).

The athletes and coaches are part of Cortland Stars, SUNY Cortland’s Special Olympics club, which is gearing up for its annual track meet, the Cortland Classic, on Saturday, April 20. Details are forthcoming.

The club allows student coaches to work with individuals with varying levels of intellectual disabilities, autism or Down syndrome. They invite athletes from all ages and backgrounds, with most hailing from Cortland and Ithaca, N.Y.

“Our active mission is to provide an opportunity for individuals with and without disabilities to come together to achieve a common goal through various sports like basketball, soccer and track,” said Cortland Stars co-president Morgan Valerino of Syracuse, N.Y.

Practices are every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the university’s Student Life Center basketball courts. All students are welcome.

The Cortland Classic has been a marquee event, culminating the Stars’ work throughout the year. Athletes within the program compete with the Special Olympics clubs of Ithaca and other regional clubs.

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Cortland Stars club members mingle on the court with their Special Olympic trainees (images here and at top by J.A. Sassine Jr. '23).

Cortland Stars athletes participate in the long jump, 50-meter dash, 400-meter dash, and shot put. All events are officially timed and recorded and the athletes are cheered on by SUNY Cortland fans and members of various athletic teams.

Since its inception in 2018, the club has taken many forms and remained strong despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The club shifted to online programming, which involved having a different Cortland coach take over and lead programming such as stretches or yoga over Zoom.

“COVID created a different atmosphere,” said Valerino, a senior in Cortland’s inclusive childhood education major. “Our program thrives off of socialization, and building those general relationships is hard to do online.”

Even in the initial return to in-person meetings, the club faced challenges.

“Because of the different restrictions on masks and no high fives, we had to do elbow bumps instead,” Valerino said. “So, it was hard growing during COVID-19, but now, seeing each other smile has been such a huge part of it.”

The program has stayed strong two years after the COVID restrictions were removed. About 20 student coaches participate with the seven athletes weekly, and the athletes’ progress is clear.

“They’ve grown exponentially from when we started,” said co-president Morgan Rehm of Merrick, N.Y., about the progress made by the athletes during the three years she’s worked with them. “They’ve grown not just their abilities to do sports, but socially.”

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A Special Olympics contender at last year's meet is encouraged by nearby Cortland Stars club members (image by C.J. Johnson).

Rehm, also a senior, is a science major with a minor in the psychology of individuals with disabilities.

She wants to be a pediatric occupational therapist and, like Valerino, had worked with clubs like Cortland Stars throughout high school. However, this type of background isn’t required to participate.

“I think a lot of people think that they need to have experience working with people with disabilities, too, which you don’t,” Valerino said.

“I mean, Morgan and I did, but Ronnie didn’t have any, and now he’s vice president of the club, Rehm said, referring to Ronald Marchese-Solano, a sport management major from Long Island who eventually wants to work in event management for a sports team or a sports business.

Marchese-Solano saw the mission of the Cortland Stars at a club fair, which was enough for him to start his journey with them. He said the club allowed him to grow with the athletes.

“One of the things that we really emphasize is making connections with athletes,” he said. “It really means something to the athletes when they see you come every week, show up and have a good time. As much as they learn, we learn as well.”

This symbiotic relationship Cortland Stars coaches have with the athletes manifests itself with the impact of the work they do every week.

“We had an individual come up to us last semester saying how much this has changed their life,” Valerino said.

“With everything going on in the world, having some part of your week that is rewarding, encouraging and ignites your passion, whether that be through sports or just socializing with people in general, has been the most rewarding part of it all.”

Contact co-presidents Morgan Valerino and Morgan Rehm for more information.

Prepared by communications office writing intern Jean-Andre Sassine Jr. '23


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