For kids and adults who are rarely in the limelight, victory was sweet as they splashed across the finish line at the natatorium in the Birmingham Crossplex.
On Jan. 24, 160 athletes and their unified partners — family members, relatives and friends — competed in the Special Olympics Alabama Birmingham Swim sectional. Special Olympics is a year-round sports training and competition program open to children and adults with intellectual or physical disabilities.
There were 13 teams from across the state with athletes, ages 8 to 67, competing in 27 swim events, ranging from the 25-meter backstroke and breaststroke to the 800-meter freestyle. The competitors swam in 39 races in various divisions, based on age, gender and ability.
A regional meet, it was one of four state qualifying events. That means all participants, whether or not they win an award, are automatically eligible to compete in the Special Olympics Alabama State Summer Games at Troy University May 15-17.
“Most of our athletes would not be given the opportunity to participate in mainstream sports,” said Finlay Witherington, Special Olympics Alabama sports coordinator. “These events give our athletes their own sense of accomplishment and well-being.”
The Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) and the company’s Energizers teamed up for the day, with 20 employees and retirees lending a hand.
Some volunteers were timers for the swimming events. Others monitored the action and directed the athletes to their start positions.
“This is a great opportunity for Alabama Power, the service organization and the Energizers to provide social support to our community and our state,” said Curtis Bowden, rate specialist in Alabama Power Regulatory Pricing. “Events like these bring joy to the athletes, their families and volunteers. It’s an honor to serve and support the Special Olympic organization.”
Alabama Power Market Specialist Jeanne Gallagher said volunteering was a “real pleasure.”
“There’s no way I could do what these swimmers are doing,” she said. “They have worked so hard. They are very competitive and want to win. But even if they don’t win, they are still happy and have a very positive attitude.”
APSO and Energizers are the company’s nonprofit charitable arms comprised of employees and retirees, respectively. Members of the groups volunteer thousands of hours every year in Alabama communities.
The meet culminated with an awards ceremony where ribbons were presented to swimmers who finished first through eighth place in each division. APSO and Energizers volunteers assisted the winners at the podium.
Witherington said she is grateful to APSO and Energizers volunteers for the role they played in making the event a success.
“We have only five employees in our office, and we are serving 16,000 athletes across Alabama,” she said. “To have volunteers help us with our meet is tremendous because it allows our staff to put a lot of our resources back into our athletes. The volunteers are our superstars.”
Witherington said the efforts of the volunteers also mean a lot to the athletes.
“It allows our athletes to see new faces and a new crowd cheering for them,” she said. “When our athletes make friends with you, you’ll have a friend for life. We couldn’t do what we do and benefit our athletes without our volunteers.”
Alabama Power Information Systems Analyst Shelby Mitchell said she was bowled over by the swimmers.
“Seeing the level of excitement and the dedication from the swimmers and coaches has been amazing,” she said. “You can just see the time they have put into making sure they perform well. I’m already looking forward to volunteering next year.”