Soccer helps Special Olympians at USA Games soar to new heights – Orlando Sentinel

A few days before the opening ceremonies of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Game, players, parents and coaches of the OCA Eagles soccer team gathered at Central Florida Dreamplex for a celebration. Members of the group were set for a week’s worth of competition against teams from across the country.
There was food, awards, accolades and plenty of smiles to go around the room. Posters greeted the players with warm wishes and good luck while rows of red, white and blue soccer balls waited for them to sign.
Silvia Haas runs the event with the precision of someone who’s spent nearly two decades coaching the sport. She masterfully maneuvers everyone from table to table while answering questions without missing a beat.
This is the fourth time the Eagles have competed in the USA Games, with the group previously taking part in 2010 (Nebraska), 2014 (New Jersey) and 2018 (Seattle). The unified team took home silver the first two times and the traditional team won the national championship the last time out. This time, they represented Team Florida in Orlando.
“It’s exciting because it’s a new experience for some of the athletes, and for others they’ve done this before,” said Haas.
Special Olympics soccer athletes Kip Williams, left, and Garrett Jacobs are taking part in this week’s 2022 USA Games in Orlando. The pair is part of the OSC Eagles, an area soccer team that’s competed in four previous USA Games. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
The Eagles are one of 11 unified teams from all over the country taking part in tournament games at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Unified teams feature athletes with and without intellectual disabilities who combine to play on the same team.
A few years back, OCA teamed up with several UCF athletes to form a partnership that’s been beneficial for both sides.
“It was just electric to see them engaging with the athletes and learning how to break things down and teach them,” explained Haas. “This really gave them a lot of great experience to be able to do that.
“If we can help build them as in their character and have them become amazing young men and women and contribute to our community, I’ve done my job.”
Even with this being his fourth time at the USA Games, Garrett Jacobs, 29, flashes a huge smile with an emphatic “Yes” when asked if he’s excited to be participating in this week’s events.
Jacobs began playing soccer at an early age, stepping on the field as an 8-year-old. He wasn’t sure he’d continue playing.
“He would stand in the middle of the field and cry and then look over and say, ‘I don’t want to play soccer,” recalls Crystal Jacobs, Garrett’s mother. “But about a year-and-a-half or two years into it, when he noticed all his friends playing, he was like, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
Special Olympics soccer athletes Kip Williams, left, and Garrett Jacobs pictured at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando on Saturday, May 21, 2022. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Jacobs would become one of the better players on the team, emulating techniques he picked up from the partners. Aside from his soccer skills, the team atmosphere has helped him grow as a person.
“I wanted him to be able to develop better communication skills and to be able to talk to his teammates and have fun,” Crystal said.
Kip Williams started soccer in middle school, developing a passion for the sport at 13. It allowed him to make new friends, including those bonds he’s formed in the short time with the Eagles.
“He really bonded with this team,” said Kip’s father, Kip Williams. “He bonds with certain people and he won’t stop. He wants to play and play and play.”
Unlike his teammate, Garrett, this is Kip’s first USA Games. He wants to connect with players from teams outside Florida.
“Yeah, for sure,” said Williams.
“I think it will be a good thing to do because he’ll get to meet a lot of people in the Olympic village,” added Williams’ father.
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osmattmurschel.
Copyright © 2022, Orlando Sentinel
Copyright © 2022, Orlando Sentinel

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