Something Special in Terre Haute

By Karen Weik

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” So goes the motto chanted by Special Olympic athletes across the nation each year as they participate in regional and state games. The saying has become a credo to inspire thousands of communities to support the organization, and millions of athletes to attend, despite challenges they may face. And for the past 43 years, every second weekend in June, the Indiana Special Olympic games have been held in Terre Haute. It has become a proud tradition that local residents hold near and dear to their hearts.

“At the very least, 6,000 people come here every June,” said Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director, David Patterson. “Our community is transformed.” Special Olympics Indiana President and CEO, Michael Furnish, says their athletes “love” Terre Haute. “Many of our athletes don’t travel much. With everyone, their first trip (to Terre Haute) is total adventure. For many, it’s the first time away from home.”

Athletes from all 92 Indiana counties are represented at the state games, and start to arrive in Terre Haute on Thursday, prior to the three-day event. Indiana State University, in downtown Terre Haute, hosts the games and opens its dorms for athletes to stay in. Friday night’s opening ceremony and Olympic-style parade of athletes kicks-off the festivities at ISU’s Hulman Center, complete with music, entertainment and the flame of hope. Ceremonies include an inspiring keynote speaker to launch the celebration in style. But it’s the athletes themselves, their experiences here and how they affect those who watch them, who are in for the real treat.

Special Olympics pic (great!) of smiling athlete

“Everyone needs to spend one hour at Special Olympics. It’ll change their life,“ Patterson says. “The games feature sports at its purest form.” The “goodwill-based venture”, as Patterson calls it, not only provides a financial impact to the area, but breaches the gap of interacting with people with disabilities. Furnish calls it, a feeling of acceptance. “People want the athletes there, they put up signs saying “Welcome Special Olympics!’. There’s a feeling of welcome-ness that instills pride.” With sixty percent of athletes living at home, regardless of age, “Terre Haute is the only place they know outside of home,” Furnish explains. “It’s a spectacular adventure! They navigate the university freely, because they are wanted there. It gives them a chance to feel like they’re going to college—an opportunity they would otherwise never get to experience.” Special Olympic games were first held in Indiana in 1969. The year prior, the very first games—ever—were held in Chicago’s Soldier Field. Special Olympics were the brainchild of the Kennedy family, spearheaded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Bush Stadium, in Indianapolis, hosted the first Indiana games with several hundred athletes in attendance along with two physical education professors from Indiana State University. Professors Tom Songster and Judy Campbell witnessed the games as a great way to train their students to be teachers, by gaining valuable practical experience orchestrating events. Thanks to their efforts, the following year, the state games moved to Terre Haute and Indiana State University.

Furnish says 2,600 athletes participate in Special Olympics annually in Indiana, with at least 1,000 people accompanying them to Terre Haute. The organization then recruits more than 1,000 people to work the event. “We run the biggest track and field event in Indiana,” Furnish explains. This year, athletes will compete in a new track at ISU, situated along the Wabash River. Authorities are working to make the state-of-the-art track, featuring a large screen, better than ever, to enhance the athlete’s experience. Those in the know say attending the games is a “must-see” experience, if for no other reason than to see pure joy, happiness and sportsmanship at its finest. “If you come here, to experience this event, you’ll never forget it,” emphasized Patterson. “It’s an experience like none other.” Special Olympics will be held June 10-12 in Terre Haute at Indiana State University and Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. Events include aquatics, bocce, bowling, cycling, horseshoes, powerlifting, track and field, and volleyball.

Special Olympics pic of kids running

For more information contact Terre Haute Visitors Bureau at