BATON ROUGE, La. - For more than two decades, the United States Bowling Congress and Special Olympics have teamed up to provide a one-of-a-kind bowling experience to athletes from across the United States, and that partnership continued this week at the Baton Rouge River Center.
Nearly 350 bowlers from 15 states made the trip to Baton Rouge to compete in the Special Olympics National Unified Tournament, an event that has shared the stage with the USBC Open Championships every year since 1991.
The relationship has taken the athletes, coaches, family members and supporters to 13 different cities in 11 states and given them the chance to see parts of the country they might never have visited. Some participants have been there almost every step of the way, including Gary Schwartz, who has brought teams to the event every year since the tournament was in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1992.
"If you've never attended this event before, you've really missed out on something great," Schwartz said. "We have made friends from Alabama, Georgia, Wyoming and even Alaska, who we never would've had the chance to meet. And the format gives everyone a chance to compete and succeed, and that's really what it's about. It's special for the athletes, and that's something we strive for 52 weeks a year."
While the Special Olympics athletes may not be participating in the Open Championships itself, they get the same championship experience, including a trip through the scale room and a ceremonial march down Center Aisle.
Competitors this week were divided into four-player teams Wednesday and returned for doubles Thursday. In all, there were 46 divisions, so no bowler went home without an award. Each team included two Special Olympians and their unified partners, which helps carry the message of friendship and camaraderie from year to year.
"This experience gets better every year, and we're thrilled to be a part of the USBC family," said National Unified Tournament Director Marty Allen. "It has been fun watching the Open Championships and the venue change over the years, and our bowlers have changed a lot in that time, too. They've grown to appreciate the magnitude of the setup and the professionalism of the Open Championships, and you can see that reflected in their uniforms, ability and coaching. They are clearly proud to be a part of this tournament."
The first National Unified Tournament was held alongside the 1991 Open Championships in Toledo, Ohio, thanks to the hard work of then Open Championships director Hal Kaminski and Bowling Ambassador for the Special Olympics, Jimmy Schroeder, a USBC Hall of Famer. Schroeder remains a part of the event and was joined in Baton Rouge this week by fellow hall of famer Bob Hart.
This year's field included participants from Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
"The Special Olympics has always been a big part of the bowling community. We're excited to show the athletes and their coaches that Special Olympics bowling will continue to be supported by our industry," said Eric Kearney, USBC Managing Director of Operations and Administration. "This event serves as an example of ways we are working to expand that partnership by helping coaches and supporters make the bowling experience more enjoyable for the athletes."
After the short break for the National Unified Tournament, competition will resume at the 2012 Open Championships, which will run for 151 days from Feb. 11 until July 10. More than 12,000 five-player teams are scheduled to compete on the tournament lanes for a prize fund of more than $5 million.
Sponsors for the 2012 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno. Other sponsors include the Belle of Baton Rouge, official brackets sponsor; Kegel, official lane maintenance provider; Humana, official registration sponsor; Bud Light and Budweiser, official beer sponsors; The Advocate, official publication sponsor; Brunswick, official lane provider; Steltronic, official scoring system; Storm Bowling Products and Nationwide Insurance.
About Special Olympics
Special Olympics is an international organization that changes lives through the power of sport by encouraging and empowering people with intellectual disabilities, promoting acceptance for all, and fostering communities of understanding and respect worldwide. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown from a few hundred athletes to more than 3.7 million athletes in over 170 countries in all regions of the world, providing year-round sports training, athletic competition and other related programs. Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities continuing opportunities to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy and friendship.
Visit Special Olympics at www.specialolympics.org.