Special Olympics of Utah (SOUT) opened its Summer Games Saturday morning, lighting the cauldron after the West Valley Police Department joined athletes and volunteers to run the final leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run around Granger High School’s track. 

“The Summer Games today are a return to play after 15 months of being away from competition,” said SOUT president/CEO Scott Weaver. “You can see that our athletes are excited to be back, and are as committed as ever.”

Weaver credited the athletes and their coaches for following protocols at practices, and using personal protective equipment that was distributed to teams across the state to return to training in preparation for the Summer Games. 

Saturday featured around 260 athletes from across Utah though events were limited to individual sports. But those competing in track and field, swimming, and softball skills didn’t miss a beat despite the time away and scorching temperatures, providing fans with several competitive heats and events to cheer on. The local games provide an avenue for athletes to work toward qualifying for the USA and World Games. The USA Summer Games will take place in Orlando in 2022, while the next World Games are in Kazan, Russia in Winter 2022. 

Two athletes who competed in track and field Saturday had qualified for the World Winter games prior to the pandemic shutdown.  

“I was so stoked when I found out I qualified for the World Games,” said athlete Emily Rissinger. “I’m excited, but nervous because I’ve never left the country. I definitely like snow shoeing, but running is my thing so I’m also excited about today.” 

Rissinger, a Layton product and member of the Davis Angels team, competed Saturday in the 400 meters and softball toss, for which she finished with an 18-meter heave. 

Joining Rissinger in Russia is Hyrum Palmer from the Davis Defenders team. Palmer is a well-known runner among his peers. He highlighted Saturday by winning the 3000 meter race with a subpar 6-minute mile average. The Kaysville resident has been running since the eighth grade and knew early on it was something he could be very good at. He is constantly striving for new personal records, admitting he does marathons in between competitions for fun. He also loves competing in snowshoeing and is excited to compete in the World Games. 

“I love seeing my friends at competitions and just being there for everybody.” — Special Olympics athlete Emily Rissinger

 “My first Special Olympics event I did was snowshoeing,” said Palmer. “Some people say snowshoeing is different, but I think it’s not a whole lot different from running, maybe a bit harder.”

For both athletes, Saturday was an opportunity to explore qualifying for the 2022 USA Summer Games. It was also an opportunity to see friends and fellow competitors who push and cheer each other on. 

“I love seeing my friends at competitions and just being there for everybody,” said Rissinger. 

Special Olympics of Utah will continue competitions with bowling tournaments across the state in July. They also are working with Utah’s First Lady Abby Cox to grow their Unified Sports Program. The program is one of Cox’s Show Up Initiatives. Unified Sports teams are made up of people with and without intellectual disabilities at high schools, colleges and with other clubs across the state. 

“As anybody knows that has seen Unified Sports in action, you know the benefit—our athletes are benefitting,” said Cox. “The other major benefit is for our peers and the entire community because it is the perfect way to fix all that ails us in our society. It connects us with one another through our differences, it helps kids develop empathy, it helps kids to have friendships and not have fear of somebody who is different than them. It is absolutely the thing that is going to propel our society forward in the most positive way possible.”

Cox was on hand Saturday for the Opening Ceremonies and to cheer on the competitors.  

Overall, it was a great day of competition and return to action.

Melissa Yack is a contributor for the Deseret News.