Following in the footsteps of his parents and three siblings, incoming Huntsville High senior Sean McCone last week took part in the 50th Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Wash., and helped his softball team win a gold medal.
About 100 athletes represented Team Arkansas in Seattle last week. McCone was chosen to be a “unified partner” with the Arkansas softball team. He played alongside Special Olympians as Arkansas beat Texas in the gold medal game on Thursday.
The opening ceremony for the 50th games was held on July 1 in Husky Stadium at the University of Washington. The closing ceremony was last Friday at Lake Union Park.
“Partners sharpen their athletic skills and model acceptance and inclusion while participating in Unified Sports,” Sean’s mother and district Director of Special Education and Student Services Tonja McCone wrote on the high school’s Facebook page. “A primary goal of Unified Sports is to equalize the ability level of Special Olympics athletes with their partners and to promote inclusion through team practice and competition.”
Tonja McCone is also the Area 3 director for Arkansas Special Olympics.
According to www.specialolympicsarkansas.org, “Special Olympics Unified Sports is an inclusive sports program that combines an approximately equal number of Special Olympics athletes (individuals with intellectual disabilities) and partners (individuals without intellectual disabilities) on teams for training and competition.”
This upcoming school year, Sean McCone will be coaching and competing on Huntsville High’s new unified sports teams. The teams will be coached by Zack Wiggins and Sean’s dad, Greg McCone, who is also the Lady Eagles high school basketball coach. Sean plays football, basketball and baseball at Huntsville High, as well.
On the Arkansas softball team in Washington, Sean was partnered with Special Olympian Tevin Walker from Forest City, who is hearing impaired.
Tonja wrote on Facebook that Sean “was also responsible for accompanying his partner to events and assisting as his partner in any activity. Making sure they were there ready helping them get places as needed. Helping them play the sport to best potential and to enjoy their time on the time.”
Sean’s siblings — Brittney, Chad and Courtney — all have been involved with Special Olympics.
Tonja said she became involved with Special Olympics in 1991, then became area director the following year, when she and Greg married.
“Sean literally has been drug around for everything,” she said by telephone in Seattle. “He’s a gym rat anyway ... he watched the others compete in Nebraska, Iowa and New Jersey.”
Tonja said Sean earned his spot with the state softball team.
“They have to go to sports camp and be selected,” she said. “They practice every month throughout the year. He’s had to go to Conway to practice.”
Sean said by telephone that the opening ceremonies were “definitely an awesome experience.” He also got to meet former NBA star Gary Payton, who was part of the opening ceremonies.
The McCones stayed in dorms at the University of Washington.
“I just love coming to watch our athletes compete,” Sean said. “It’s just another way that I know I’m helping them to fit in. I love coming to Special Olympics events.”
On the area and state levels, Sean has played flag football, floor hockey, softball, soccer and basketball with Special Olympics.
Tonja said giving up time in one’s personal life to help special athletes is, indeed, special.
“I feel proud of them for giving their time, because it takes a lot of time,” she said of her four children. “They give up a part of their life. We want them to love other people and take that opportunity to reach out to other people.”
Greg McCone said he’s proud of all of his children.
“It makes a dad proud,” he said. “As a coach and a dad, I get to see them caring about people that maybe get [shunned] by society and maybe don’t have some of the same opportunities that my kids have. I just like to see them giving back to the people that don’t have what they have.”
Greg said he has gone to all of the national games where his children competed, and even went to some international games in Connecticut and North Carolina.
About Sean, Greg said, “He’s the baby of the family. He’s gone from a high school kid, somebody who takes, takes, takes for his purposes and taken what he’s learned and given to other people. He’s started to give to people instead of taking from people.”
Courtney, who graduated from HHS in 2017, said in a message through Facebook that she and her siblings have been involved with Special Olympics “since we learned to walk.” In 2014, she attended the USA games in New Jersey and played on the unified soccer team. Courtney said the rewards of being involved with Special Olympics are numerous.
“We’ve all been to many sports camps, area games and state games,” she said. “Being a part of Special Olympics is a very rewarding, fun, humbling and heartwarming experience. Whether it’s playing along the side of an athlete or just hanging out in your downtime, it will leave you smiling with many friendships.”
Brittney, who graduated from HHS in 2010, works as an environmental engineer with George-Pacific in Cumberland City, Tenn. She said through Facebook that she’s attended Special Olympics events “as long as [she] can remember.”
“There are people in the organization who remember when I was born, so it has been kind of like a second family to me,” she said.
Brittney said she has seen all sides of Special Olympics.
“I started out attending local and state events with my parents, helping as a volunteer, and then started going to camps as a group leader,” Brittney wrote. “I have been a part of two USA National games: the first in 2006 when I was on a unified soccer team in Iowa, and the second in 2010 on a unified softball team in Nebraska.”
Brittney said Special Olympians are an inspiration to play alongside.
“I love participating in Special Olympics because the athletes inspire me every time I am around them,” she wrote. “They are always so happy to be there, no matter what the conditions or how tired they are, and they truly love competing in every sport. It has been an amazing organization to be able to volunteer with and I know I get more out of it than I can ever give to it.”
Chad recently graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in recreation and sports management. He is a 2013 HHS graduate.
“In both high school and college, I really enjoyed being able to use my love for sports to help volunteer with these athletes from all over the state,” he wrote in a Facebook message. “Over the years I have volunteered with a variety of different sports. Basketball, flag football, baseball, floor hockey, softball, and my personal favorite, powerlifting,” he wrote.
Chad, like his sister Courtney, took part in the national games in New Jersey.
“Easily the highlight of my experience when working with [Special Olympics] was being able to play on the Unified Softball team in New Jersey at the Special Olympic National Games in the Summer of 2014,” he wrote. “Each state had athletes that came and I was proud to represent my state.”
Special Olympics have been a McCone tradition, he said.
“Each one of my siblings has been able to play both soccer and softball at different Special Olympic National games,” Chad wrote. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say we really had an amazing time representing both Special Olympics and team Arkansas at the USA games.”
Chad also praised the special athletes who take part in the games.
“Special Olympics has taught me so many things, and through my involvement, I have gained multiple great friendships,” he wrote. “The obstacles and adversity that these athletes have to overcome are amazing. The athletes who participate in [Special Olympics] are some of the most joyful and courageous people that I know.”
Chad said he’s become a better person through Special Olympics.
“I don’t know many people who have volunteered for Special Olympics and have not come out with a smile,” he said. “I know for certain that being involved in this organization has made me a better person.
“Many of us love sports for a variety of reasons. For me, I love how sports can bring the world together, and I believe Special Olympics is a prime example of that.”