Clif Bar Teams with the Special Olympics: Sports as a Force for Good
At Clif Bar & Company, sports have always been about more than simply wins and losses. We support some of the world’s best competitive athletes in sports ranging from cycling to snowboarding, and we also support up-and-comers and amateurs. Perhaps even more importantly, we look for athletes who are genuinely nice people — who give back to their communities or the planet, and who care about the transformative power of sport as an agent for good.
That’s why we’re a proud new supporter of Special Olympics, beginning with its 50th Anniversary event held in Chicago in July 2018. The event brought together 300 athletes from around the world for the first-ever Unified Cup — 16 male and eight female soccer teams comprised of young adults with and without intellectual disabilities.
Not separate teams, but inclusive ones. Athletes with disabilities played alongside those without. All bound by their love of sport, playing the world’s most popular sport in front of thousands of spectators and culminating in nationally televised finals matches on ESPN2.
“We believe sports can be a powerful force for social good,” said Thao Pham, Vice President of Community at Clif Bar. “Sports can transform lives — those of the athletes themselves and those of the others they impact. People who are intellectually disabled shouldn’t be excluded from that. We live in a time where fostering inclusivity is more important than ever.”
Rose, Meet Alexa
As part of our inaugural Special Olympics experience in Chicago, Clif Bar brought along professional athlete Rose Wetzel to help train, cheer on, and inspire Special Olympics athlete Alexa Donato, a member of the Special Olympics USA – Illinois female Unified soccer team.
Rose, 36, is a professional obstacle course racer, former contestant on NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, and a personal trainer. In the past, she has held a fundraiser for Special Olympics and trained two athletes with intellectual disabilities for its competitions. “They worked so hard, and we also had fun,” Rose said. “It reminded me of why I got involved in sports in the first place.”
Not surprisingly, Rose is a non-stop bundle of energy who runs marathons, competes in four-hour obstacle course races, and has ridden her bike 12 straight hours from her hometown Seattle to Portland. Perhaps her energy is a survival technique from being one of nine children. Yet it’s being a role model for children, especially young girls, that still drives her “by showing them how to be strong and confident in our society,” according to her online biography.
Alexa, 19, is another bundle of energy — intellectual and motor skill disabilities aside. She took up figure skating at age three and began playing basketball in fifth grade. Since high school, she has played soccer, softball, basketball, floor hockey, bocce ball, and track. “Anything she can do, she’ll play,” said her mother, Patty.
Between games at the Special Olympics Unified Cup event, Rose helped Alexa with stretching and agility drills, and the two talked sports, American Ninja Warrior, and life. Just two athletes sharing stories.
“I like her a lot,” Alexa said of Rose. “She tells me a lot about herself, and she’s really funny.”
“She’s a great young woman,” said Rose of Alexa. “On the field, she’s focused, aggressive, and there for her team. Off the field, she likes to have fun with her teammates and friends.”
On the sidelines before their elimination game, some of Alexa’s teammates without intellectual disabilities good-naturedly ribbed and hugged her. “Sometimes they tease me, but I love them a lot,” Alexa said with obvious joy. Just a group of athletes, bonding as equals, having fun.
Though Alexa and Team Illinois played with passion and intensity, they were eliminated on a controversial, last-second goal call that brought an apology from Special Olympics organizers because the referees “missed one.”
While disappointed by the loss, Alexa walked away with far more than memories of the final score. “I had fun, and I’m coming back next year,” she said. “Being with my teammates and enjoying every minute — that was the best. I’m just so honored, so humbled to be here."
Level Playing Field
The power of inclusion — teaming athletes with intellectual disabilities with those without — wasn’t lost on her mom, either. “[Children with intellectual disabilities] go to school and have lunch with their peers, but they don’t typically get to play sports with them — that’s a whole new opportunity,” said Patty. “The kids [with intellectual disabilities] dream and aspire to do what their siblings do, what their cousins do. Special Olympics Unified Cup gave them that opportunity.”
Rose, the world-class athlete, felt the inclusion from an athlete’s perspective. “Watching Alexa and her teammates warm up gave me goosebumps,” she explained. “There was no ‘you and me,’ there was just a team. During the game, you couldn’t tell the difference between the athletes with intellectual disabilities and those without — and that’s what it’s all about.”
She likens having intellectual disabilities to “having an obstacle course on top of the obstacle course of life in a world that isn’t as inclusive as it could be. The Special Olympics Unified Cup enables Alexa to just get out there and navigate the world as a human being, where she can be herself. I love that!”
Although Special Olympics began as an organization only for athletes with intellectual disabilities, it has grown to feature world-class Unified competitions that showcase inclusion. “We’ve evolved,” said Chad R. Jones, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for the nonprofit organization. “We realized it’s a bit exclusive not to put athletes, those with and without intellectual disabilities, on the same team. If our ultimate goal is to end discrimination, to open hearts toward our community, then we have to do that on the field.”
Together, we can overcome the fear of difference through the power of inclusion. Join us and sign the Inclusion Pledge from our friends Special Olympics.