Special Olympics helps kick off 2019 USBC Open Championships March 8, 2019 By Makinzey Marracco and David McCordUSBC CommunicationsLAS VEGAS - Special Olympics National Unified Tournament participant Tom Fessler returned to the South Point Bowling Plaza this week to again share the biggest stage in bowling with his mother, Jo Fessler. Tom Fessler began bowling competitively in 1988 with his father. The mother-son duo began bowling together after Tom's father died, and they haven't stopped since.The two were among more than 400 bowlers who competed in team and doubles competition at the 2019 National Unified Tournament, which helped usher in the 116th edition of the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships, which begins March 9. The competitors were joined by more than 120 coaches and supporters."It's really nice meeting other people and trading all of the state pins," Jo Fessler said. "Tom's pin collection at home is on a big corkboard in his apartment." Their Ohio-based team looks forward to the competitive nature of the Unified Tournament each year. This time, they finished the team event in a tie for fourth place with a 1,400 three-game total. In years past, Tom Fessler carried a 160 average coming into the tournament."We counted up his medals one day, and he's got over 300," said Jo Fessler, who also competes with her son in Special Olympics golf tournaments. "As we get older, we don't get as many medals, but we still have a great time." The Special Olympics Unified Tournament, which first was held alongside the Open Championships in 1991, has an impact that extends far past just the participants. It holds a special place for the families and everyone else who gets to be a part of making the event happen year after year. The 2019 edition of the Special Olympics National Unified Tournament marked the 29th consecutive year the two events have shared the same venue. The relationship began in Toledo, Ohio, with the help of USBC Hall of Famer Jimmy Schroeder."We look forward to it, and we have such a good time," Jo Fessler said. "Everybody is so kind, and the facility is beautiful."Beyond the one-of-a-kind venue, another staple of the National Unified Tournament has been tournament director Marty Allen.Allen and Schroeder worked together to unify the two events.The first year saw participants bowl alongside celebrities. Though that has changed, the event's success and growth has not. After the first year went so well, Allen was asked to host again, and he's been at the helm ever since.Seeing all the athletes gather at the event is the most rewarding part for Allen. Meeting their families and seeing the same faces return every year in different locations is gratifying to all involved. "You become friends, and you see them grow up," Allen said about the participants.The appreciation and involvement of the parents and fans is another thing that makes the experience so meaningful. "In bowling, more than other sports, you see mothers and fathers with sons and daughters," Allen said. "It's family bowling."While bowling is not included in the traditional Olympic Games, it is second only to track and field in both popularity and participation in the Special Olympics. Regardless of physical ability, every team member gets a chance in bowling.The two-day National Unified Tournament took place Wednesday and Thursday and was one of the best turnouts in tournament history. Special Olympics athletes bowled for ribbons and gold, silver and bronze medals.Each team at the National Unified Tournament was comprised of two Special Olympians and their unified partners. The combination helps promote inclusion, acceptance and breaks down barriers through competition. To be eligible for the Special Olympics National Unified Tournament, competitors must be USBC members, have a certified average of 15 or more games and have competed in their local Special Olympics events.Beginning Saturday, the South Point Bowling Plaza will welcome more than 10,000 five-player teams for the 2019 Open Championships, which will run for 122 days from March 9 through July 8.