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‘Magic moments’ for athletes

It’s all about the “magic moments” for Special Olympics Wairarapa’s new basketball team. PHOTOS/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

A new sporting group is giving young people the opportunity to develop their fitness, find a sense of belonging, and be themselves – in “a space where the small wins can be celebrated”.

Although, after some more training sessions, Wairarapa’s Special Olympians hope to get some big wins under their belt.

Special Olympics Wairarapa, first launched in the region in 2011, has added basketball to its roster – forming a team of 10 young athletes at the start of this year.

The team, which trains at Wairarapa College every Friday afternoon during the school term, is open to primary and secondary school pupils living in the Wairarapa region who have learning [intellectual] disability.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with learning disability – providing year-round training and activities to five million participants in 72 countries worldwide.

New Zealand has 43 active Special Olympics sports clubs – whose members participate in a range of Olympic-type disciplines, from equestrian, to athletics and swimming, to artistic gymnastics.

Though it has been active for over a decade, the Wairarapa club’s numbers have dwindled in recent years, with only two athletes competing at a national level.

Its new basketball team was the brainchild of Amanda Kawana, head teacher at WaiCol’s Whare Awhina unit [formerly the Supported Learning Centre], which caters to disabled rangatahi who receive ORS funding.

Kawana wanted her students to have the same opportunities to participate in sport as their non-disabled peers – which can be difficult in a mainstream school environment.

“Our kids are often unable to play sport in an environment where they feel comfortable and accepted,” she said.

“Sport is a big part of life for young people – so why shouldn’t children with disabilities be able to join a team?”

“We have our own basketball hoop here at Whare Awhina, so we thought a basketball team would be a perfect fit.”

Attending their first training session last term was overwhelming for the young people – most of whom had never played a team sport, or even seen a game of basketball.

Since then, however, the team has come along in leaps and bounds – and have had plenty of “magic moments” to celebrate, Kawana said.

“The best part is seeing the joy on their faces every Friday.

“It’s amazing to see them light up when they shoot their first basket, or when they realise they can dribble the ball down the court without looking down – it’s a huge confidence booster.

“It’s all about those small wins.”

The young athletes face off on the court.

Kawana coaches and manages the team with support from two assistant coaches: son James Kawana, who plays for WaiCol’s Senior A boys basketball team, and Special Olympian Tom Morland, who has played basketball since age eight.

Special Olympics Wairarapa is applying for a grant which will allow it to employ a team coach.

When coaching youngsters with learning disability, Kawana said the key is to break the game down into small steps: helping the players develop all the individual elements, such as court positions, dribbling, passing, and where to aim when shooting a basket.

She said the players have come a long way in their knowledge of basketball – are now facing off against one another for end-of-session games.

“They now know, for example, where to stand on the court, and that they need to keep the ball at waist height while dribbling.

“They know the difference between a bounce pass and a chest past. They know, when you’re shooting, that you aim for [the backboard] – rather than just biffing the ball in the air.”

The team has received sponsorship from The Offering café, which will go towards branded hoodies for each of the players.

Eventually, the athletes hope to compete at regional and national level – but, for now, Friday trainings are one of the highlights of their week.

“Being part of a team and having that sense of belonging is so important,” Kawana said.

“They’re getting fitter, they’re building resilience and social skills, and they’re learning it’s okay to make mistakes.

“Plus, it’s a great conversation starter – they take so much pride in being able to tell family around the dinner table that they’re part of a basketball team.”

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