Pandemic makes way for Special Olympians to join iconic race

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Credit: Doug Carroll, Courtesy of the Special K’s

Credit: Doug Carroll, Courtesy of the Special K’s

A group of 22 Special Olympians will run the AJC Peachtree Road Race for the first time

Good coaches never know what they will need to fetch from their bag of motivational tricks. Whatever it takes, right?

Rebecca O’Grady is the distance-running coach for the Special K’s sports program in north Fulton County. For years, the Special K’s have been a haven for Special Olympics athletes, providing them with a tightknit community for activities, fun and support.

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This year, with the AJC Peachtree Road Race going virtual, the Special K’s have an opportunity to participate in the iconic Atlanta Track Club event for the first time. O’Grady − known to her athletes as “Coach Becky” − wanted to guarantee a sizable turnout on Thanksgiving weekend.

And so …

“I told them I would run in a turkey suit if we got 20 to sign up.”

That’s the inside story of how 22 Special K’s − plus Coach Becky in feathered disguise − will participate in the Peachtree on the morning of Nov. 27 at Riverside Park in Roswell. The turkey costume might be a silly touch, but the Special K’s are serious about the Peachtree. Some in the group will run the full 10K. Others will run or walk shorter distances and be part of relay teams coordinated by O’Grady.

About half of the participants will have partners to accompany them, a concept known in the Special Olympics as “unified partnering.” Atlanta Track Club is providing complimentary entries for the partners.

O’Grady, 27, of Alpharetta, is a nurse practitioner in the intensive care unit for Piedmont Atlanta Hospital who has volunteered with the Special K’s for six years and the Special Olympics for much longer. She knows all the Special K’s runners and walkers and has created a three-day-a-week training plan for each one.

The usual Peachtree, with its crush of participants and spectators through the heart of Atlanta on the Fourth of July, would be sensory overload for many of the Special K’s.

This version, on the other hand, will be perfect.

“Many wouldn’t do great in a big crowd,” O’Grady said. “That can be intimidating for them, and it would be difficult. This is a great opportunity for us. This whole pandemic has been hard, but some really good things have come out of it.”

The Special K’s array of sports also includes cycling, soccer, basketball, golf, tennis and bowling. The group’s focus ordinarily is on the Special Olympics Summer Games at Emory University, but those were canceled this year because of the pandemic. Last year, Special K’s runners participated in a marathon relay at the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park, raising more than $3,000 for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

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Credit: Doug Carroll; Courtesy of the Special K’s

Although the Special K’s have held weekly meetings this year via Zoom, trying to keep the athletes and their families engaged, things just haven’t been the same socially or competitively.

Virtual fitness challenges on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends – of covering 1000K and then the distance between Atlanta and Los Angeles, respectively – both exceeded their goals. The Atlanta-L.A. challenge even received a boost by motivational videos from Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Gwen Jorgensen, but the Peachtree still figures to be the highlight of 2020.

“This is awesome for us to be Peachtree Road Race participants,” said Chris Bray, 51, a special-education teacher at Centennial High School in Roswell who oversees the Special K’s sports program. “It’s about us being active and working toward a goal.”

Special Olympics Georgia, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, serves more than 26,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities in 121 counties. The Special K’s, which does not receive any state funding, counts more than 100 athletes, from age 8 to 50, on its roster.

Serving primarily the Johns Creek and Roswell areas, the Special K’s were recognized this year by Special Olympics Georgia as Outstanding Local Special Olympics Program. Martin Jelleme, soccer coach for the Special K’s, was named Outstanding Coach of the Year after creating a unified league, North Fulton United, with 90 players and eight teams.

Some in the Special K’s are accomplished competitors. Arjun Sharma, 20, of Johns Creek, has completed nine half marathons and several Peachtrees and also has climbed Mount Fuji in Japan and Pikes Peak in Colorado. He has been selected to carry the torch in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2022 in Kazan, Russia.

“This group gives them a sense of belonging and confidence,” Arjun’s father, Rupesh Sharma, said of the Special K’s. “What Becky and Chris do is remarkable. They give instruction every week and they make it so fun. They’re tireless. I don’t know how they do it.”

Bray, a Special Olympics volunteer for more than 20 years, is like a pied piper to the athletes, a best friend to seemingly everyone. With his relentless good cheer and encouragement, it’s difficult to imagine a better fit.

“Chris is the best thing to ever happen to the Special K’s,” O’Grady said. “His heart is gold, and it’s always in the right place.”

The secret to the group’s success, she said, is an intentional focus on one-to-one relationships. Her sister was a Special Olympics athlete, and she knows that personal connection is everything.

“We love these athletes,” O’Grady said. “We’re like a big family, and we have the support of their families. This is where we all want to be. They feel validated and they feel seen.

“Every time we do something, we want it to feel special.”

Even if it takes wearing a turkey suit to make it so.

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