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Alaska athletes set to take off for 2022 Special Olympics USA Games

Team Alaska will send the largest delegation in the program’s history
A Special Olympics Alaska athlete shoots some hoops during an event at the Jim Balamaci...
A Special Olympics Alaska athlete shoots some hoops during an event at the Jim Balamaci Training Center in Anchorage.(Jay Luzardo | Alaska's News Source)
Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 2:27 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two Alaska organizations came together to provide Team Alaska a free ticket to compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.

“Our athletes already earned their spot on the start line. Right now, we just have to get them there,” said Sue Perles, CEO of Special Olympics Alaska, before the announcement was made at the Jim Balamaci Training Center Wednesday. “That’s what today is about, ‘how do we get 10,000 miles of travel from Alaska to Florida and back again?’”

Alaska Airlines and GCI announced during a Special Olympics Alaska event Wednesday morning that both organizations will finance the team’s trip to Orlando, Florida, for the games in June 2022.

Special Olympics Alaska athletes pose for a photo with a giant plane ticket stub at the Jim...
Special Olympics Alaska athletes pose for a photo with a giant plane ticket stub at the Jim Balamaci Training Center in Anchorage.(Jay Luzardo | Alaska's News Source)

Team Alaska is sending its largest delegation in program history to compete. The group consists of 29 athletes, 11 unified partners, 13 coaches, 16 support staff and two people participating in the Youth Leadership Experience, according to a spokesperson for Special Olympics Alaska.

“They’re going to have a fabulous time, it’s an experience of a lifetime,” Perles said. “They’re gonna make new friends and have new challenges, and learn about themselves and about others.”

The athletes represent seven Alaska communities — Anchorage, the central Kenai Peninsula, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and Tanana Valley. And they will compete in eight of the 19 Olympic-style team and individual competitions at the event, which include sports like swimming, track and field, gymnastics and basketball.

During the announcement, Team Alaska athletes applauded the news and showcased some of their athletic ability for guests. Representatives from both companies attended the event and offered kind words and advice for Team Alaska.

“Do your best, try hard, have fun and make friends,” said Paul Landes, a senior vice president with GCI. “Helping our athletes achieve greatness is something that makes us feel like we’re really part of the community, and we’re participating in changing lives all for the better.”

“It’s so inspiring to me personally ... these athletes are an inspiration to all of us,” said Marilyn Romano, a regional vice president with Alaska Airlines. “No matter if you’re an athlete or a business person, anything that you can do that inspires you to do better, I think is a great inspiration.”

To conclude the event, former USA Games competitor Ayesha Abdul-Jillil rallied her fellow athletes to cheer on Special Olympics Alaska.

“It felt really good ... it was a great experience,” Abdul-Jillil said about her time at the USA Games.

She took home gold in the 100-meter run, silver in the 400-meter run and bronze in shot put at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. Abdul-Jillil’s finish in the USA Games qualified her for the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, where she won gold in shot put and bronze in the 100-meter run.

Perles said Team Alaska makes sure different athletes get to compete in the USA Games, which means that Abdul-Jillil will not be adding any more medals around her neck in 2022, but she’ll be cheering on her peers from home.

While the athletes will carry all the glory of winning a medal in the USA Games, Perles said it wouldn’t be possible without financial support from the community.

“Special Olympics athletes, these are athletes with intellectual disabilities, never pay to participate,” Perles said. “The only way that our program is possible is through the generosity of the community. Thank you to everyone in Alaska for supporting Alaska’s amazing Special Olympics athletes.”

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