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Utah recognizes Special Olympic athletes, urges inclusion

First lady Abby Cox recognized athletes for leadership, encouraged legislators to take inclusion pledge

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Utah first lady Abby Cox poses for a photo with high school-age Special Olympics Utah athletes at the Capitol.

Utah first lady Abby Cox poses for a photo with high school-age Special Olympics Utah athletes as part of her Show Up initiative at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The Show Up initiative supports the growth of the Special Olympics Unified Sports program in Utah schools.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah first lady Abby Cox and state lawmakers recognized two dozen Special OIympic athletes Wednesday at the Capitol.

In the Senate, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, R-Cottonwood Heights, commended the athletes, allies and Cox’s efforts to encourage inclusion.

National Spread the Word Inclusion Week encourages people to come together and recognize differences of abilities, Riebe said. She encouraged legislators to “take the pledge” to spread inclusion.

“Pledge to use respectful language, share stories to bring awareness and inspire others, attend events that strive to make accommodations, volunteer and support organizations that support all athletes,” Riebe said.

She continued, “As legislators, it is crucial that we hear the stories of determination so we can assist in removing barriers to success.”

In the Capitol’s Gold Room, Cox spoke of the value of inclusion, especially during Inclusion Week. She said she has visited school classrooms in the state exploring the ideas of leadership and inclusion with students.

“Not only are you playing sports, not only are you being leaders in your community, you’re helping to be an example to people that are going to come after you,” Cox told the athletes.

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Utah first lady Abby Cox greets high school-age Special Olympics Utah athletes as part of her Show Up initiative at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The Show Up initiative supports the growth of the Special Olympics Unified Sports program in Utah schools.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Her heart, she said, is with the Special Olympics Unified Sports.

“I will always be a champion for my friends who don’t have a voice, and I want you to be that too,” she said.

“You have incredible abilities,” Cox said, “And never let anybody tell you that you don’t.”

Rachel Vermeltfoort and Kyle “Pickles” Karren told the Deseret News about the value of the Special Olympics.

As an athlete with a learning disability and a part of the board of directors for Special Olympics Utah, Karren said, “(Special Olympics offers) so much love, so much compassion, so much community. You don’t get it anywhere else.”

“We can share their life experience as an athlete, as someone with an intellectual disability, and invite other people to join,” Karren said of the week of inclusion.

Vermeltfoort, the unified coordinator at the University of Utah’s Special Olympics program, encouraged anyone with an interest in the Special Olympics to get involved.

Reaching out through the Special Olympics Utah website is a great way to find a program nearby, she said. Adult individuals in the Salt Lake area with intellectual disabilities can get involved by reaching out through the Utah Intramurals Instagram as well, Vermeltfoort said.

For people who do not have a Special Olympics team near them, Vermeltfoort said, “It just takes one person that wants to do it to create it. ... You have the support from the professional staff. It’s challenging, but it’s worth it.”

This program, she said, aims to be accessible to everyone across the state.

“Special Olympics,” Karren said, “is a family.”

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Utah first lady Abby Cox stands with high school-age Special Olympics Utah athletes and their partners as part of her Show Up initiative in the Senate at the Utah state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The Show Up initiative supports the growth of the Special Olympics Unified Sports program in Utah schools.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News