AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As athletes from across Texas gather in Austin for the Special Olympics Texas Winter Games, organizers say participation is at an all-time high.
The winter competition features three sports: volleyball, bowling, and powerlifting. The organization reported more than 2,600 athletes participating from Thursday through Sunday, including three dozen volleyball teams, and nearly 100 powerlifters.
"We are the highest in numbers we’ve ever been and it’s really exciting," Molly Kuchar, who heads up program support and education for Special Olympics Texas, said.
Jordan Carter's volleyball team from Arlington emphasizes teamwork and a family atmosphere as members prepare for competition.
"It makes us stronger and makes us tougher," Carter said Friday.
Of course, walking away with a medal always helps Carter's confidence.
"Getting gold medals, that’s what we do," he said as he cracked a smile.
For others, competing on the statewide stage is an opportunity to focus on strategy.
"The key to bowling is to get strikes and maybe a couple of spares," Pflugerville bowler Benji Garcia said. Garcia also competes in flag football, basketball, swimming, and track and field.
The winter games launched in 1991, but this year is special for the organization, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
"We have a foundation that is absolutely amazing right now, the foundation from the first 50," CEO and president Tim Martin said. "Now, it’s time for the inclusion revolution, now it’s time for the rest of the world to know what spectacular talents our athletes in Special Olympics have."
Part of innovating the organization is the development of "Unified Sports," or teams made up of individuals with or without disabilities competing together.
"Back in the day it was just for individuals with 'disabilities,'" Martin explained of the team expansion. "Our athletes have gifts and we need to share those with people and they need to be a part of your lives."
Special Olympics Texas offices around the state host approximately 300 fundraising events and competitions each year. Hurricane Harvey forced organizers to cancel some of those competitions because some athletes had to drop out and venues were damaged. Organizers say those athletes are ready to make up for lost time.
"Seeing the power of the athletes, the families, coming together and saying we are not going to let something like that stop us, we are going to rise above it and be bigger and greater than 50 years of celebration on top of that it’s just one more reason to celebrate," Kuchar said.
The non-profit thinks the Hurricane aftermath may have cost them one-point-one million dollars in fundraising opportunities in 2017.