There's a new league of athletes in town, and they're scoring big already.
Thanks to the Special Olympics Committee, an adaptive sports league is now available in Bulloch County for differently-abled, school-aged youth, ages kindergarten through 12th grade. This semester, the exceptional athletes are participating in a bowling league, with plans for a track/field league and softball league in spring 2017.
League competitors gather at The Clubhouse on Monday evenings at 5:30, flanked by their personal cheerleaders: family members, Georgia Southern University student volunteers and special education teachers including Kandi Akins and Cindy Thompson.
Always ready to give a high-five or hug, Gavin Colquitt, associate professor of adapted physical education at GSU, meanders through the lanes, keeping his eye on the bowling scores. Coaches Hannah Alexander, a GSU kinesiology graduate student, and Stephanie Viness, GSU lecturer and physical activity healthful living program assistant director, encourage and assist when needed.
Part of the purpose of the eight-week-long practice and competitive bowling league is to qualify top-scoring athletes for the state-level Special Olympics, held in Atlanta during the summer.
"This will be the first time a group from Bulloch County will qualify to go to state Special Olympics in bowling," said Cindy Thompson, Statesboro High School special education teacher and Bulloch County Special Olympics Committee member. "The bowling league gives the kids the opportunity to socialize and compete with their peers."
Watching her 20-year-old son, Corinthians, line up on the lane and carefully execute his release, Cecelia Kelley couldn't help but gush about the program.
"He absolutely loves it," she said. "He looks forward to coming. It gives him motivation and independence."
Corinthians bowls on a lane with fellow athletes who cheer one another on, encourage each other, smile and clap with every knocked-down pin. One lane over, younger athletes send balls down the lane, some faster than others, and anxiously count the pins left standing.
And in another lane, athlete Jade jumps up and down until her ball topples into the pit, runs back to hug her mom, checks the score and then takes her seat to watch her friend.
The adrenaline and excitement is palpable, from the competitors to the student volunteers to the coaches, teachers and parents. With enough smiles to fill every lane available, the atmosphere is alive with cheering and clapping that can be heard over the noise of tossed bowling balls.
Delinda Gaskins said her 6-year-old son loves coming to The Clubhouse.
"He asks, 'Mama, today is bowling day, right?' " Gaskins said. "It gives him a sense of belonging. He's learning to be part of a team.
"He's building friendships and learning something new," she continued. "He has his own personal league; he has ownership of it. And I love how the kids are learning to cheer each other on."
The best part of the league, according to Colquitt, is that the kids are enjoying competition in the right way - learning to put forth their best effort, regardless of the outcome. He points out that the motto of the Special Olympics states: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
"What we're trying to do is start sustainable programs for kids with disabilities so that they can have the same opportunities as other kids, whether it be sports, exercise, fitness or recreation," he said.
Colquitt said the adaptive sports league has received great support from the Bulloch County school system, GSU and the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department. Jerseys for the league were purchased by the Student Therapeutic Recreation Association, a GSU student group.
To find out about bowling practices or the spring adaptive sports league, contact the rec department at (912) 764-5637.