TOPEKA (KSNT)- The Topeka Stars Special Olympics softball team won a national championship Friday.
The local softball team, made up of athletes with intellectual and physical special needs, made a trip to Orlando, Florida, last week and came back with some hardware.
“The emotions were over the top,” athlete Shawn McWilliams said. “I was lost for words. I didn’t know really what to say.”
The team has been active for 8 years and many of its athletes have been competing since day one.
“It’s great that we can get out and be ambassadors for Special Olympics, proving that just because these people have intellectual differences, they’re not disabled,” head coach Allan Henderson said. “They try to prove that every single day.”
Besides the memories they make on the field, participating on the team helps the athletes grow into mature young adults, Henderson said. The players have to sign a behavior contract to participate. The contract means they agree to stay away from bad habits and commit to representing themselves and their team to the best of their abilities.
“There was a time when my anger had got the best of me,” McWilliams said. “From where I was before and here I am now…I’ve been told a lot, every day. I’ve come a long way from where I was.”
Henderson got the idea to start the team when watching a Special Olympics adaptive recreation softball game. He realized the difference between abilities was significant, and was concerned for some of the lower functioning athletes’ safety. He also realized the higher functioning athletes had plenty of skill.
He started the Topeka Stars softball teams, and they began playing in local city league games. The team has practices, weight lifting and even diet and exercise training to help the young men on the team prepare to play at an elite level within Special Olympics.
McWilliams, a 26-year-old with bipolar disorder and ADHD, is grateful for what he and his teammates have been able to show others through their play.
“The way I look at Special Olympics is, it gives a chance for people with intellectual disabilities, or people who can’t really move very well, it gives them a chance to show what they’re made of in whatever sport they play,” McWilliams said.