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Achieving Greatness With a Smile

The Special Olympics Summer Games at Cal State Long Beach last weekend comprised 1,100 of Southern California’s best athletes. Meet Coach Saunders and The Riptides, who took the gold medal this year in the Summer Games.

The Special Olympics Summer Games at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) last weekend comprised 1,100 of Southern California’s best athletes who competed in front of a crowd of 10,000 people. Special Olympics, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities. This is the 20th year that the Southern California Summer Games has been held at CSULB.

“It was a great way to kick off the 50th anniversary of the movement,” said Bill Shumard, president and CEO of Special Olympics Southern California. “Special Olympics is everything good and right about sports. The athletes steal the show and are so courageous and poised— the more they step up, the more they overachieve, and it touches the heart. It was a great weekend of competition, fun and fellowship for all our athletes, volunteers and coaches.”

In bocce, one of the Summer Games sports, it’s all about who can get closer to the golf ball, thrown beyond the centerline. Lorna, Terry, Chris and Robert are just a few of Coach Jim Saunders’ spectacular athletes who have competed in the Summer Games throughout the years. They returned to be on-hand during exhibition day while rooting for their fellow bocce teammates, named “The Riptides,” who were practicing for this year’s Summer Games. Lorna has been competing and volunteering in the Special Olympics since 1982 in multiple sports including swimming and bocce. After a game of bocce on a clear-skied day, her smile said it all.

“[Bocce] is a really fun sport; easy on the body—but it’s a mind game, you always have to be alert and focused,” Lorna said while proudly showing off her Long Beach State painted nails.

If you play it right in bocce, you knock the other team out of play and the winner is the first team to 11 points. Watching all the action is Lorna’s coach, Jim Saunders, a volunteer Special Olympics coach for almost 17 years.

“I always tell [my athletes] that they should watch what the other team is doing [during bocce tournaments]. I get on them at times, but the most important thing is having fun,” Saunders said.

Saunders moved from Pittsburgh to Long Beach in 1978 and has lived in the 908 ever since. On exhibition day this year, before the Summer Games began, Saunders recalls how proud he felt during the Opening Ceremonies when his own son, David, competed in the World Games of Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho. That’s when Saunders began volunteering with Special Olympics.

“It was impressive because he got about two weeks of practice and he came home with a silver medal in snowboarding,” Saunders said of his son. “The kid from Switzerland who beat him for the gold medal [did so] by only 1/100th of a second. [My son] was pretty upset about it, and I said, ‘David, think about what you did, this kid grew up doing this. You got only two weeks of practice and you got a silver and a bronze medal.”

That encouraging spirit is probably why The Riptides have been so successful this year, winning multiple tournaments throughout the year in bocce, oftentimes practicing at night in the cold. The Riptides took the gold medal this year in the Summer Games.

“It was the perfect ending to a great season,” Saunders said. “Karl Kiker, Elijan Lopez, Thomas Basch, and Tim Holmes, coached by [fellow team coach] Gaby Tucker, proved that hard work during the season does pay off.”

It is evident that Coach Saunders is very proud of all his athletes—past and present.

“Maybe over the years, people have told them that they can’t do this or that, and then they realize—yes they can,” Saunders said. “That is the main thing for me, to make sure they’re happy, learning and putting forth their best effort. When they do, it’s their joy, but not as much as mine. I love to see them get their rewards. They are all just wonderful people.”


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