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The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore., Austin Meek column

Register-Guard - 7/15/2018

July 15--If there's one thing that unites athletes in the Special Olympics, it's their ability to adapt.

Adaptability is just another word for toughness, and toughness is just another part of what it means to be an athlete. Athletes are people who push back against their limitations. If you want to know what that looks like, watch a man with braces on his legs hoist himself out of his wheelchair, take a golf club and whack a ball down the middle of the fairway.

The 25 or so athletes who gathered Saturday at RiverRidge Golf Course have learned to adapt, to push back against the challenges they've been dealt. They were dealt another one last month when Special Olympics Oregon announced it was canceling its 2018 Summer Games, originally scheduled for this weekend in Corvallis, because of a funding shortfall.

After hearing that news, the golfers in Eugene-Springfield's Special Olympics program did what athletes do. They adapted. Instead of going to Corvallis for the state games, they organized their own event at RiverRidge, complete with prizes, pizzas and a skills competition.

"Everybody started saying, 'I can do this' and 'I can do that,' " said Pat Church, a Special Olympics coach who coordinates the local golf program. "A couple of the coaches made the cupcakes. It just snowballed. Everybody was willing to do something and help out."

That's a great story, but it doesn't erase the disappointment those athletes felt when they learned the state games had been canceled. As much as they enjoyed spending an afternoon at the golf course with their friends, it didn't replace the opportunity to socialize with hundreds of their peers from around the state.

"I got really (ticked) off and really mad," said Chelsey Rust, 27, one of 10 local golfers who'd qualified for the state games. "I was also really sad for a long time.

"We're trying to make the best of it, but it would have been better in Corvallis."

The local branch of Special Olympics is mostly self-supported, relying on annual fundraisers like the Eugene Polar Plunge to raise money. The state organization helps with money for travel expenses and stages statewide competitions in fall, winter and summer.

Britt Carlson Oase took over as CEO of Special Olympics Oregon on June 1 and announced the cancellation of the summer games less than three weeks later. An examination of the organization's finances revealed the situation to be even more dire than previously thought, forcing Special Olympics Oregon to take drastic steps to shore up its bottom line.

The organization hopes the state games can resume next year. Meanwhile, athletes are trying to understand how things got to this point.

"I was bummed," said Allan Overwater, 41, who qualified for the state games in the unified partner category. "They said there was something going on with the money, and I was like, 'I'm confused.' We did the Polar Plunge and we did lots of fundraising. We did the Ems game to fundraise and I helped sell tickets. I don't understand why there's no money."

Financial problems at the state level left local Special Olympics programs scrambling to fill the void left by the cancellation of the state games. Ted and Kristi Barker, volunteer coordinators for Special Olympics in Eugene-Springfield, said they were surprised to learn the extent of the state organization's financial woes and caught off guard by the late cancellation.

Special Olympics Oregon is exploring new funding sources to make sure the state games are sustainable, and if cancelling this year's event helps the organization regain its footing, the Barkers can accept the decision. Still, there's a sense among everyone that the athletes deserved better.

"They're serious athletes," Kristi Barker said. "They take it as seriously as the ones at the U of O or NCU. They deserve to be recognized as much as anybody else."

One thing about these athletes, though: They don't complain. Whatever disappointment they were feeling, it didn't stop the smiles, laughter and cheers from flowing Saturday afternoon at RiverRidge.

"It's a bunch of emotions coming together," said golfer Janae Ettinger, 19. "We're making the best of it, basically."

Better than any of us, that's what they do.

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email ameek@registerguard.com.

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