Athletes Contend in SD Special Olympics State Games

Chris Fischer
Posted 5/29/24

South Dakota Special Olympics held its annual State Games on May 16 th to 18 th in Vermillion. The event included: volleyball, swimming, track and field, soccer, and powerlifting. Each category had …

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Athletes Contend in SD Special Olympics State Games


South Dakota Special Olympics held its annual State Games on May 16th to 18th in Vermillion. The event included: volleyball, swimming, track and field, soccer, and powerlifting. Each category had at least 3 competitions within it. The event was the culmination of the spring and summer.

Richie Vrooman, co-coach of the team from the SD Developmental Center, stated that they only participated in the May 18th track and field day. Team members competed in: the 100-meter run, the 50-meter run, and the mini javelin. The team ended up winning 5 gold medals, 6 bronze medals, and 4 ribbons. (Competitions generally have up to 8 participants. The top 3 receive bronze, silver, and gold medals. Everyone else receives a ribbon.)

Athletes had to qualify for the State Games. In April, Area Games were held throughout the state. For those in NE South Dakota, the Area Games were in Milbank. It was here that Redfield athletes qualified for the State Games.

In Special Olympics, there are different skill levels. For example, track and field included races, relays, and throws – but also walks, and assisted walks. There were also events specifically for those who used wheelchairs.

Participants must train for competitions. Per the South Dakota Special Olympics site (, athletes have to train for at least 15 hours over at least 8 weeks. These hours don’t all have to be dedicated to the same sport.

Coach Vrooman said “One thing about Special Olympics athletes is that they’re dedicated.” In regard to the activities, he said “It’s just like any other sport. We’re required to put in so many hours.” Athletes were encouraged to eat right and stay hydrated – Vrooman noted that this was easier at the Developmental Center, as there was dietary staff. Athletes had to be well enough to participate, so physicals were a requirement.

Vrooman said “For every sport we have, whatever your skill level is, they will have an event for you.” He explained that as part of training, the coaches wrote down all athlete’s times and distances. This was so that competitors could be relatively evenly matched.

The team was made up of residents of the South Dakota Developmental Center, who could use some of their free time to put in extra practice. This was encouraged. There were also set practice times with the team and the coaches.

In order to be able to compete in Special Olympics, athletes must have “intellectual disabilities, cognitive delays... or significant learning or vocational problems due to cognitive delay.” (This information was found at The listed issues may manifest in many ways. There is variety among the skill levels of participating athletes.

An intellectual disability, for example, would not necessarily mean that a person could not do myriad things. People who have disabilities are each unique. Also, Special Olympics started a program called Motor Activities Training Program. The focus of this program would be on those who had more severe disabilities, and were unable to participate in the athletic events. This program worked on developing motor skills, and striving to improve.

A big part of Special Olympics, according to Vrooman, is the social aspect. He explained “There’s a lot of interaction.” He added that athletes might run into others whom they “might have been roommates with, or friends, or they might have lived in the town or gone to the same school. They run into a lot of people that they knew in the past.”

According to Vrooman, the SDDC teammembers were “pretty gung-ho” about participating and practicing. He added that they have “really good sportsmanship.” The team this year was made up of adults aged 18 to mid-50s. Other opportunities exist for younger people. The Developmental Center only had adult competitors. Vrooman added “I can tell you that everyone who went on these trips had a good time.”

In some places, funding could become an issue. For example, most Special Olympics athletes don’t drive. Someone would need to provide transportation. When social service organizations that support those with disabilities cut funding, participation in Special Olympics may not be possible.

Vrooman explained that those who supervise the SDDC team work at the center. An allotment for expenses related to training and traveling for Special Olympics came from the yearly budget.

Many volunteers are involved with Special Olympics, both in the coaching and training, and during big events. Those wanting to volunteer could either reach out to a local team or to SD Special Olympics headquarters in Sioux Falls.

Vrooman and Mike Jungwirth were the more experienced coaches. They might retire soon. Vrooman stated that he’d probably still be involved, just in a different capacity. The torch will be passed to others, such as Jessie Rothacker, Tyler Glabitz, and Hilary Lang. Special Olympics coaches must be trained, and learn the rules.

Some other events: the Law Enforcement Torch Run, Unified Bowling, Singles Bowling, Equestrian, Bocce Ball, and Softball happen throughout the year.

Vrooman, a long-time employee of the Developmental Center, was always a sports fan. Among other things, he wrestled in college. He said “When I started in ‘87, I thought I’d be here 3 years for my wife to finish college, and we’d be gone. But yeah, we’re still here.” He eventually got into coaching. This was organic, considering his love for sports, and also his enjoyment of working with the residents at the Developmental Center. He found it to be rewarding. He said “Once you get involved here, you’re hooked.”