As the winter Olympics unfold in Russia, a group of prominent Washington State residents has gotten behind an effort now in its final stages to attract Olympic Games of a far different sort to Seattle.
Seattle is among a handful of cities that have submitted formal bids to host the 2018 Special Olympics national summer games, which would represent not only a major economic impact for the Seattle area but provide a fitting showcase for Special Olympics of Washington (SOWA).
Special Olympics Washington is a national trendsetter of the organization founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation as a movement to change the world's view of the intellectually disabled. Special Olympics has since become the largest sports organization in the world, involving 3.5 million athletes in 160 countries.
Beth Wojick, who in December marked her fifth anniversary as CEO of Special Olympics of Washington, has brought an evangelist's conviction about the role sports can play in enhancing the lives of the intellectually disabled. But she is also a tough-minded critic of those who would diminish the importance of the organization's mission and she has done battle to grow the Washington organization's impact across the state.
As a result of her single-minded focus, Special Olympics of Washington has distinguished itself among its peer groups from other states, prompting special praise from Robert Gobrecht, regional president for the U.S.
"Beth has transformed Special Olympics of Washington and is one of the rising stars in the movement," said Gobrecht. "In her five years, Beth turned around the chapter's finances, engaged the major school districts in the state to actively promote UnifiedSports and personally developed a North American partnership with MLS ( Major League Soccer) for Special Olympics international."
The MLS reference was to an arrangement Wojick worked out with the Seattle Sounders that represented the first partnership between a Special Olympics group and a Major League Soccer team.
In essence Wojick's organization and the Seattle Sounders wrote the playbook for what has become an international partnership arrangement after the two organizations held seminars for MLS teams and Special Olympics groups on how to carry out the partnerships.
Last spring a tournament was held in San Jose, Costa Rica, for Central American teams composed of both intellectually disadvantaged and typical players, with the U.S. squad featuring eight Special Olympics athletes from Seattle and Portland and eight Seattle Sounders FC development players, who serve as the Unified Partners in the tournament.
Teams made up of intellectually disadvantaged athletes and typical athletes are called Unified Teams, a concept that has become the trademark for successful Special Olympics programs around the county.
The concept has been around in the Special Olympics organization for eight years, but Wojick and her state organization have taken the concept deeper and wider than in other states.
And the depth of Wojick's belief in the importance of the Unified Teams program is evident when she talks about it.
"I've seen firsthand that when typical kids play on the same teams as intellectually disabled kids, magic happens," she enthused.
"When pep rallies occurred in the past, our guys would be sitting in the back in the dark. Now they have uniforms on and they have friends in the school who are going to protect them. Now they are somebody."
|Two youngsters in Young Athletes event|
Special Olympics Washington has also become a leader in a program called Young Athletes that engages both parents and athletes at a very early age, aimed at getting the athletes between the ages of 3 and 7 playing in a sports environment. The Washington program is the second largest in the country, involving 4,000 young participants.
The formal bids for the 2018 national games went in on January 31 to the national organization. Seattle's thick binder contains supporting letters from, among others, Gov, Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray and two members of the state's congressional delegation, Rep, Dave Reichart, who has been involved with Special Olympics for more than 20 years, and Rep, Cathy McMorris Rogers, who has a son with Downs Syndrome. In addition there are letters from business and community leaders.
The bids site committee will visit Seattle in April and decide in May on the city that will host the 2018 games, a prize that Wojicksays will carry significant economic impact.
'This takes four and a half years to organize, is a $10 million event that, by comparison, is twice Seafair's size, and is estimated to have an economic impact of almost $120 million," she said. The seven-day event involves 3,500 athletes and 1,000 coaches in 16 sports.
Winning the bid for the 2018 games would be a fitting reward for what Wojick has built since assuming the post for which she got a personal request from Gobrecht, to undertake.
Gobrecht, then president of Seattle Seafair, had hired Wojick out of college in 1988 and she followed him to the Seattle Mariners when Gobrecht became marketing vice president. Wojick returned to Seafair as president when Gobrecht left the Mariners and she was later lured by the Seattle Seahawks to head corporate relations.
Wojick recalls that when she first assumed the CEO role, she asked what we were doing in public schools.
"The answer was nothing," she says. "They didn't want us. They said they couldn't do Special Olympics. So I began what amounted to hand-to-hand combat."
What changed, she says, was that she started approaching the athletic directors rather than the administrators and took a Special Olympics athlete from another school district who was wearing a letter jacket.
"The athletic directors would instantly have a sense of 'why aren't we doing this?' and they became our spear carriers for the program," she says. "What they understood was the Unified Program offered a chance for everyone to play."
"Now the school districts that have signed off view it as a program they thought of, and that's fine," she smiled. "We have programs year-round in 16 Unified sports and most of the state is involved."
Asked if there was anything that surprised her when she first took the CEO's role, Wojick said there were two things. First the size of the organization internationally.
"Second was that the athletes quickly learned my name," she said. "They all know who Eunice Shriver is, and they all know who I am. I am a hero to them, which is strange because they are my heroes."