LAND O’ LAKES — The Special Olympians trickling into the mini-theater at Land O’ Lakes High on Monday were unsure why their coach called them to a meeting on a sunny July afternoon when school is out for summer break.
A few had suspicions, though, and those were confirmed when the image of Sherry Wheelock, president of Special Olympics Florida, appeared on a screen via Skype.
Wheelock had an announcement. The Land O’ Lakes High Special Olympics Grey soccer team had been chosen to represent the United States next year at the 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
“We know you are going to do a wonderful job representing our Team Florida,” Wheelock said.
There was applause and a few tears of happiness, but several athletes appeared too stunned to react.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Coach Vicky King said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
It’s also hard work that paid off. The 11-member team won the gold in May at the Special Olympics Florida State Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, which helped garner the attention that would propel them to World Summer Games scheduled for July 25 to Aug. 2, 2015. There they will join more than 7,000 Special Olympics athletes from 170 countries.
The World Summer Games are held every two years, but the Los Angeles games will be the first in the United States since 1999, when the event was in Raleigh, N.C., King said.
“It’s cool,” said Rufus Smith-Jones, 13, a seventh-grader at Pine View Middle who is the lone middle school student who will make the trip. “I was just excited.”
The Land O’ Lakes team is a unified team, which means some team members have intellectual disabilities while others, referred to as partners, do not. Seven team members are on the field at once, a balance of four Special Olympics athletes and three partners.
“Pasco is known for our unified program,” said Val Lundin, a director of Special Olympics in Pasco. “The basic (education) kids love helping out.”
Two of those partners are Tom Guglielmello and Kyle Townsend, both 17-year-old seniors who are as excited as anyone about the chance to compete with teams from around the world.
“It’s crazy,” Townsend said. “It will be an experience.”
Guglielmello said he had an idea what was up when King called the meeting, which included Special Olympics athletes who aren’t on the soccer team, but she did a good job of remaining secretive.
“She kept us in suspense,” he said.