These Special Olympians are Good as Gold

Gymnasts Morgan Hulteen and Rhea Alathur will compete, along with about 60 other New Jersey athletes, at the 50th Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

Special Olympians Rhea Alathur, left, of Monroe, and Morgan Hulteen of Neptune, train at the Schafer Sports Center in Ewing.

Special Olympians Rhea Alathur, left, of Monroe, and Morgan Hulteen of Neptune, train at the Schafer Sports Center in Ewing. Photo by Joe Polillio

Call it the opportunity of a lifetime. Gymnasts Morgan Hulteen and Rhea Alathur will compete, along with about 60 other New Jersey athletes, at the 50th Special Olympics USA Games, July 1–6 in Seattle.

Hulteen, 20, of Neptune, and Alathur, 15, of Monroe, were selected over 15 other Garden State gymnasts for the two available spots on the national team.

“I jumped for joy and cried,” on being selected, says Hulteen.

Both athletes have practiced gymnastics for several years. Their coach, Shannon Schafer, was assistant coach for the 2014 national team. She guides special-needs children at Schafer Sports Center in Ewing, where Alathur and Hulteen attend weekly training sessions for the national competition. In Seattle, they will compete in four events: floor, bars, vault and beam. Based on their performances, the Jersey gymnasts will have the chance to try out for the World Games in March 2019 in Abu Dhabi.

Coach Shannon Schafer.

Coach Shannon Schafer. Photo by Joe Polillio

Schafer says Hulteen, who has Down syndrome, has an “angelic” disposition. She excels in floor exercise, her favorite event.

Alathur, who is autistic, can’t wait to make new friends and stay at the Olympic village this summer. “I am excited,” she says. Her best event is the uneven bars.

In recent years, Special Olympics has focused on unified programming, which involves teams comprised of teammates with and without disabilities. Several high schools in New Jersey have unified sports teams. The Seattle-bound athletes are a unified team; some members have disabilities, others do not.

“It’s really something that benefits the typical athlete and the special-needs athlete,” says Schafer. “Parents want the best for their kids. Parents who have kids with special needs want the same thing.” Schafer sees gymnastics as a means to help increase confidence and build social and behavioral skills for special-needs kids.

Hulteen is certainly striving for something special. “I’m looking forward to meeting new friends,” she says, “and trying my best to win gold.”

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