GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Life has drastically changed for everybody since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March and that includes at Special Olympics Michigan.
The Special Olympic athletes are anxiously awaiting the start of their winter season as safety and their health remains number one priority.
"It's been boring, a little bit depressing," said Area 5 (Big Rapids) Special Olympics athlete, Kim Kenyon.
The winter season was cut short in March of 2020 bringing an abrupt ending to the basketball season and many others.
"It was just very disappointing for everybody because the season ended quickly," added Bill Dombrowski, a long-time Special Olympics basketball coach.
Athletes all across the state are waiting to play the sports they love but more importantly, waiting to see the friends they haven't seen since March.
"They have so many friends, the guys they went to school with through the years," said David's House caregiver, Dean Nelson while sitting next to two athletes, "through basketball, those relationships are continued, so it makes it difficult not having those outlets."
For decades now, Special Olympics has provided that outlet for the athletes to not only compete but build those relationships that will last a lifetime.
"It means a lot to me," said Justin Lorenz, a Special Olympics basketball player and athlete, "the players do, the coaches do, the whole organization does, and I love playing."
As Bill Dombrowski continues coaching Special Olympics basketball, one of his players, Steve, has been by his side since the start of it all, way back in 1973.
"He was on the first team back in 1973, and he keeps coming back," Dombrowski said while holding up a picture of them from back then, "the love that these guys have for each other, for the sport, it's all hard to explain."
Tim Hileman is the president and CEO of Special Olympics Michigan and has been communicating with athletes, coaches, and families throughout the pandemic.
"Every day is tough," Hileman explained, "we receive emails and phone calls from our athletes who just can't wait to get back on the courts or back on the fields. They understand that health and safety is, first and foremost, our top priority."
For now, the athletes are remaining positive and hopeful that they could get back to playing sports with their friends sooner rather than later.
"The months go by slow," said Terry, a Special Olympics public address announcer, "but you dig deep and go for the positive."
And many of the athletes do understand the complications with the pandemic and how they need to remain safe, especially those at highest risk.
"We know that it's a little high risk and everything," Kenyon added, "we know we would have to do a lot of safety procedures to do it, if we did any sports."
"I want to play, but we need to stay safe with things that are going on right now," said Lorenz.
SOMI has a return to play plan in place and are now waiting to hear from health officials and the state on when they can return to safe individual competitions, at the very least.
"Our hope is that if the new ordinance is kind of changed, we'll bee able to get back to the practice fields and courts in January and at least have some local and individual competition," Hileman said.
And Dombrowski says it's a good reminder that a lot of the athletes can't get out of the house during times like these and to not forget about them, the elderly, and those at high risk.
"An email, a phone call, a Zoom meeting, something to keep the contact for people that just don't have the contact like we have every day," he added.
Whether it's a month from now, or even longer, the athletes are remaining optimistic.
"It would be awesome to see everyone again, it would be great, it would be a true blessing, to all of us," said Kenyon.
"It will be a lot of fun," Lorenz added, "we'll work together and have a real good time."
Like many non-profits, the Special Olympics of Michigan is taking a bit of a hit financially due to the lack of in-person fundraising. If you would like to help out, you can find a link by clicking here.