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Editor's note: Visit the Division III/Special Olympics website here.
By Gary Brown
Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members have heard their share of motivational speeches over the years, but the one they got on Sunday from a Special Olympics athlete was a doozy.
SAAC members surround Special Olympics athlete Jason Plante, who presented to the group on Sunday.
Jason Plante, a junior at Purdue who also is a member of Special Olympics Indiana, talked to the DIII SAAC and the Division III Management Council during their joint meeting on July 24 and encouraged everyone in the room to get on board with the new partnership this year between Special Olympics and Division III.
He could not have been more inspirational.
Taking the microphone from a fellow Jason – Jason Montgomery, who as an NCAA staff liaison to the SAAC made the introduction – Plante broke the ice by saying, “Thanks, Jason … I feel like I am thanking myself, though.”
Starting Aug. 1, Division III members will have an online community to share their Special Olympics stories and track collective progress. The NCAA has developed a Division III/Special Olympics website off the Division III home page on NCAA.org from which users can access almost anything they need for Special Olympics projects on their campuses.
The new site (which will be at NCAA.org/D3SpecialOlympics) features:
Also included is a “tracking tool” for campuses conducting projects to report their activity and share success stories. Links to those stories will be included on the home page, as well, in addition to news items from the NCAA on the Special Olympics initiative.
The NCAA also established an email address for people who have questions or suggestions at D3SpecialOlympics@ncaa.org. That account also will become active on Aug. 1.
Plante was there to advocate on behalf of Special Olympics and to acknowledge Division III student-athletes for their commitment, but he made the plea personal by telling his own story of how he got involved with the organization that helps develop people with disabilities through participation in sports.
“Not too long ago, I was not this happy, positive spokesperson for Special Olympics,” said the young man who because he was born with “pervasive developmental disorder” knew his life would be challenging, especially in school.
Saying, “We all want to have acceptance and recognition by others for who we are and what we do,” Plante told the student-athletes and Council members of being rejected by peers in secondary school and suffering academically. “For seven years, I began to accept what they called me, what they said about me, and I started not to really even care about academics, because I didn’t have any confidence in myself,” he said in a broken voice.
But he brought home a brochure on Special Olympics that he got from his special education class one day, and his parents – who were there for his presentation on Sunday – thought that might be a place where Jason could flourish. “None of us would have guessed that this decision would turn my life around on such a grand scale,” Plante said.
Since then, he has participated in two Special Olympics World Games, first in Shanghai, China, in 2007, winning a gold medal in unified golf (partnering with his dad), and then participating in this year’s Games in Athens, Greece, finishing fourth in the individual 18-hole golf competition.
Plante said the support he has received from fellow athletes and volunteers in Special Olympics has enabled him to make more friends in a week than he did in years of school previously. He also turned his academics around, earning honor-roll distinction several times, graduating from high school and now entering his junior year as a psychology major at Purdue with a cumulative 3.25 grade-point average. That announcement brought down the house and interrupted Plante’s train of thought, but he recovered nicely as the applause died down by quipping, “And thank you, that’s my speech.”
Special Olympics athlete Jason Plante captivated SAAC and Management Council members with his speech.
He wasn’t done, though. He urged involvement with Special Olympics in one of three ways: as a coach who manages a team or individuals for tournaments and matches, as a “unified partner” who helps the Special Olympics athlete compete and improve skills, or as an event volunteer. Any of the three fill a need for Special Olympics, Plante said. He added that the self-gratification that comes with such involvement is off the charts, too.
“Just to be out there and see so many smiles, so much dedication – it is worth it,” he emphasized.
He finished by asking student-athletes and administrators alike to chip in.
“All of you are very experienced, very knowledgeable about the sports you compete in,” he said. “Imagine how helpful that can be to Special Olympics athletes. I believe you can change the lives of athletes just like the volunteers have changed my life to a point where I can now have a dream of graduating from a university with a good education and get the job I dream of.
“I may not become a pro golfer like I originally planned,” Plante chuckled, “but I now have a chance to go for another dream. I think you guys can change lives and be the ones who help create a new Special Olympics life story.”
That earned Plante a standing ovation, and devotion from a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee that not only selected Special Olympics for its philanthropic effort but also stands ready to lead the implementation charge.
A website dedicated to the partnership between Division III and Special Olympics will debut August 1.
“How can you not be ready to go after that?” said SAAC chair Brittany Petrella of Rowan University.
Division III officially kicks off the partnership this academic year, though many Division III schools already have standing relationships with the venerable organization. The partnership also has been activated at several Division III championships this year.
In fact, when Annette Lynch from Special Olympics North America followed Plante at the podium, she asked the SAAC how many had worked with Special Olympics athletes before. Almost all raised their hands.
“We’re looking for engagement,” Lynch said, “because that’s how meaningful relationships happen. It’s because of the positive attitude you bring – there’s acceptance, inclusion and the purity of sport to make it all work.”