Hill Country to host Special Olympics Texas Winter Games in February

Special Olympics Texas athletes will gather in February for the Winter Games. (Courtesy Special Olympics Texas)
Special Olympics Texas athletes will gather in February for the Winter Games. (Courtesy Special Olympics Texas)

Special Olympics Texas athletes will gather in February for the Winter Games. (Courtesy Special Olympics Texas)

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Special Olympics Texas will have six events for the Winter Games, including cycling. (Courtesy Special Olympics Texas)
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Special Olympics Texas athletes will head to the Hill Country in February for their first statewide event in two years, the 2022 Winter Games.

Sponsored by the cities of Bee Cave and Lakeway, the three-day event occurring Feb. 18-20 is expected to bring about 1,000 athletes and their families to the area to compete in volleyball, floorball, powerlifting, cycling and golf. The event also includes FUNdamental sports, intended to train foundational motor skills for athletes with physical and/or developmental disabilities who would like to compete in the future.

The nonprofit, established in 1969, holds competitions at local, regional and state levels with event divisions separated by age, gender and ability to give athletes an equal chance to win.

“You’ve got the kind of supportive community that will come out and show enthusiasm and give the volunteer hours to make this a truly spectacular experience with the athletes,” Director of Communications for Bee Cave Jenny Hoff said. “It’s about bringing droves of people to cheer them on, to volunteer, to make this a truly memorable experience for them.”

Why the Hill Country?

Special Olympics Texas provides year-round sports training and competitions to children and adults with intellectual disabilities and holds over 300 competitions annually around the state. There are an estimated 50,000 Special Olympics Texas competitors statewide and roughly 4,000 in the Austin area, said Sarah Reibero, director of development for Special Olympics Texas. The location for statewide events changes every three to four years, and previous host cities for the Winter Games include Austin, Round Rock and Dallas.

Sports and fitness venue Hill Country Indoor in Bee Cave is hosting some of the events this year. General Manager Chris Lupton said he met with local officials and Special Olympics Texas in September. He and his wife Angie have served as referees in Special Olympics Texas basketball tournaments in San Marcos.

With many of the facilities Special Olympics Texas uses being closed due to COVID-19, Lupton said he saw the opportunity to help out.

The cities of Bee Cave and Lakeway are also sponsoring the event and contributing $100,000 each from hotel occupancy tax funds, a revenue stream used to promote tourism.

“This was one of the easiest decisions anyone could have asked any elected leader to make,” Lakeway Mayor Tom Kilgore said. “We welcome every athlete; we welcome all of the support; and we’re really grateful that this event is coming to the Hill Country in February.”

Bee Cave Mayor Kara King said she jumped at the opportunity to hold the Winter Games. As a mother and seventh grade science teacher at Lake Travis Middle School in Lake Travis ISD, she said the decision was emotional.

“I get to know these kids personally, and to know that they get to be a part of an organization that supports them is so rewarding,” King said.

Bringing the experience to the Hill Country would make it easier for local athletes to participate in the events, King said.

“It’s going to change lives; it’s going to change perspective,” King said. “We may develop special education teachers, physical therapists, people who say, ‘I want to work with the inclusion population.’ To me, that is the most important.”

COVID-19 effect on athletes

Special Olympics events are the main form of social interaction for many athletes, and when events were canceled in the initial stages of the pandemic, the athletes were severed from their friends and social communities, Reibero said.

Athlete Engagement Manager Bruce Clarke oversees athlete leadership initiatives such as the global messenger training, which teaches athletes how to give speeches.

“It’s been really hard for all of the athletes,” he said. “Not only can they not compete in their sport; we’ve taken their social interaction avenue away. I know a lot of athletes have been secluded inside their homes and not really able to do that much.”

To remedy this, Special Olympics Texas launched S.O. Connected, an online platform that hosts videos for athletes to stay engaged in areas such as health, exercise, cooking and hobbies. The organization launched an esports program during the pandemic for athletes to play online video games. Even with the virtual platform, however, many athletes were affected by the isolation, Clarke said.

“It was a little sad, a little lonely,” said Sydney Weigand, a 24-year-old Austin native and athlete. “I would love to join with them [during the games] and be happy, and meet some new friends.”

Weigand was named the Special Olympics Texas Athlete of the Year in 2018. She got involved at age 8 and has competed in several sports over the years. Though swimming is her favorite, she said she will be competing in powerlifting during the Winter Games.

Weigand has also given speeches to governors, professional athletes, elementary school-aged children and others about the benefits of Special Olympics. She is also an ambassador on the importance of being healthy, active and strong.

“She’s been very lonely; she’s been missing her friends quite a bit,” said Delanie Weigand, Weigand’s mom. “That was a lot of her social interaction, competing and practicing every week with different teams. It’s been hard being isolated. She’s definitely ready to get back into it.”

Effect on the community

In addition to at least 800 competitors, each athlete is expected to bring two to three family members or spectators, and 90% of all attendees are expected to stay in hotels, according to Special Olympics Texas.

The Winter Games are estimated to bring around $700,000 in revenue in the region for hotels, venues, rental equipment, meals and entertainment, Bee Cave City Manager Clint Garza said.

Though the impact on outside entertainment and shopping sought out by athletes and their families has not been calculated, Garza said they expect the effect to be significant. Although Lakeway is also sponsoring the games, most activities will take place in Bee Cave just off Hamilton Pool Road.

With so many people coming into the city, residents can expect increased traffic, Garza said. To minimize this, the city will use buses to transport athletes and coaches to and from hotels, and the police department will assist with traffic control, Garza said.An active business scene combined with community support is what makes the area a good fit for the Winter Games, Garza said.

“I hope they have such a great experience in Bee Cave that they want to come back,” King said. “What a gift it is for our community to be able to host these families and students, and all the excitement and joy they’re going to have.”
By Grace Dickens

Reporter, Lake Travis/Westlake

Grace is the Lake Travis/Westlake reporter for education and city government. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2021 after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in journalism and geography.