Special Olympics athletes began competing in the ’70s


OKEECHOBEE — Although Special Olympics was not active on a regular basis in Okeechobee for over 30 years until it was brought back recently by Bernard Marker and the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, Lucy Wendt and Kathy Womble were both participants when the organization first began here in 1977. Lucy and Kathy both grew up in Okeechobee and attended the Sunshine School when it first opened in the ’60s. Their teacher at that time was Ruth Jensen, and both women remember her with affection. A few years later, the school became the Okeechobee Rehabilitation Center and both Kathy and Lucy attended daily until the center closed.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Kathy Womble took part in the bike races at a Special Stars event last year. Until she moved to an area with no sidewalks, Kathy rode her bike for several hours every day.

Lucy and Kathy have been friends all these years and joined Special Olympics together in 1977. Dianne Frye was the woman who got Special Olympics started in Okeechobee back then. She was a special education teacher.

The first Special Olympics event in Okeechobee happened in 1977, and Sandra Pearce remembers being called and asked to round up huggers for the event. In Special Olympics, huggers are a very important part of the event. Ideally, there should be one hugger per athlete. The hugger’s job is to encourage, support and, yes, hug their athlete throughout the games.

Pearce said she asked how many huggers she should bring, and they told her they needed 100. She told them that would not be a problem, and she showed up with 100 huggers on the day of the event.

According to a story in the Lake Okeechobee News (then called the Okeechobee News), the first Special Olympic event in Okeechobee had 58 participants, 23 from the Okeechobee County School system and 35 from the Okeechobee Rehabilitation Center.

At that time, the program offered the athletes the opportunity to learn how to bowl and then to compete with other special athletes. They also held track and field competitions. Both Kathy and Lucy said they enjoyed all the activities, but Kathy especially loved bowling, and Lucy really enjoyed the softball throw during the track and field events, because she was very good at it.

Kathy said she has lots and lots of ribbons and medals from Special Olympics, and she once earned a trophy in tae kwon do, but that was not a Special Olympics event. She was a yellow belt and entered a tournament.

Lucy has lots of medals as well and said she really misses the program. She enjoys getting together with her friends every chance she gets, and since the coronavirus hit, she has not had as many opportunities to see them. She does still spend a lot of time with her friend and caregiver Tracy Nipper, who takes her shopping and any other places she needs to go. The two especially enjoy getting together for movies each week with the Social Butterflies Group and were disappointed when that had to stop due to the virus.

Kathy said she was so happy when the Social Butterfly group began meeting for bingo. She had been cooped up in the house for three months and was going crazy waiting to get out and have some fun.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Lucy Wendt (front left) is pictured here with close friend Tom Gorney (front right) at a Special Olympics bowling tournament at Superplay USA.

Both Kathy and Lucy, along with all the other Social Butterflies and Special Olympic athletes, were very disappointed when the local bowling alley closed down. The group used to go once a week in order to socialize and get in some practice.

Lucy, Kathy and all their friends will be ready and waiting when Special Olympics is able to get back out on the field and in the bowling alley.

If you know someone who would benefit from Special Olympics, contact Marker, who is part of the Special Olympics management team in Okeechobee County. His number is 863-801-3393. You can also get information on their website, specialolympics.org/okeechobee.