Indiana Special Olympics provides 50 years of fellowship, acceptance
Herald Bulletin - 7/2/2019
Jul. 1--ANDERSON -- Throughout his life, 22-year-old Anderson native Austin Wilhoite has always been athletic.
In high school, he was a strong safety for the varsity football team and received letters in both football and bowling. Wilhoite remembers being called "the fastest person on the football field," but when his mother suggested he try track and field, he declined.
"I just didn't feel comfortable because I had been bullied," Wilhoite said. "I was in (special education) classes, so a lot of people in the hallways made fun of me."
It wasn't until his cousin, Zack Thompson, suggested he join him in competing at the Special Olympics that Wilhoite felt fully accepted and comfortable enough to try track and field.
"(Because of Special Olympics), he seems more relaxed, like he's not having to worry about what someone might say or think about him -- he can just enjoy the sport and enjoy the experience," said Wilhoite's mother, Vicki Lennen.
This judgment-free feeling is what Ed Castellano, assistant coordinator of the Indiana Special Olympics, said he hopes everyone can experience by participating in the Special Olympics.
"(Participants) don't have to conform to anybody's view what's normal, they can just go out there and be themselves -- be who they want to be -- have fun and everybody's just there cheering them on," Castellano said. "You're cheering on your team and you're cheering on your competitors just because they are having a good time. Everybody can't be first, but you want everybody to do their best. That is what Special Olympics is about."
Castellano began his involvement with the Special Olympics three years ago when his son, who is on the autism spectrum, graduated from high school. He wanted his son to stay active, and when he came across the Special Olympics, they both decided to give it a try.
Over the years, Castellano said he has enjoyed seeing his son, Wilhoite and other participants open up and realize what they are capable of.
From March to June, he works with Special Olympics track and field participants to help them find what events they are best at and prepare for the statewide competition through practices as well as local and area meets.
"For an hour, they're doing sprints, they're doing calisthenics, they're doing warm-up exercises -- they're practicing just like any other sport or anybody else," Castellano said. "They're practicing on doing it the right way and doing it the best they can."
This year, athletes from Madison County who participated in track and field at the statewide summer games in Terre Haute brought home 11 first-place rankings -- two of which were earned by Wilhoite in the 50-meter dash and the standing long jump.
Wilhoite also received fourth place in the mini javelin throw.
"I was surprised by all my places, really, because this is the first year doing track," Wilhoite said.
Lennen said she was also impressed by his accomplishments, and is proud of what he has been able to achieve after his experiences with bullying.
"(Seeing him bullied) was very disheartening. I really felt bad for him, but he has also thrived from it. He didn't let it get him down," Lennen said. "He didn't let it defeat him and he found a great group of individuals that were willing to make him excel and achieve what he has achieved."
Lennen added that she hopes others are able to learn from Wilhoite's journey and follow his example of not letting the negativity of others discourage them.
Castellano echoed Lennen's statement, and encouraged others to become involved with any of the activities the Special Olympics offers in some capacity.
"Even if you think it's not for (you or your child), give (the Special Olympics) a try because we have athletes with all kinds of disabilities, and they might not be able to do it at first, but with practice and patience and working with them, we can help them have fun and that's what it's all about," Castellano said.
Follow Brooke Kemp on Twitter @brookemkemp or contact her at 765-640-4861 or email@example.com
Interested in participating in or donating?
The Madison County Special Olympics is a volunteer organization that relies on donations for its variety of activities. To donate or volunteer, call 765-641-4489, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.somadisoncounty.org.
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