Winter weather means a shift in pace for residents of Morehead City. Once crowded beaches are quieted by the end of tourist season in coastal North Carolina. That is not the case for Special Olympics Carteret County athlete Riley Zahnd, 19, whose calendar has been heating up throughout the 10 weeks of Special Olympics North Carolina’s (SONC) Partner Up Power Up virtual training program.
A typical year for Riley is comprised of basketball, flag football, swimming, a lot of swimming, and tennis practices. This year, though certainly distinct from others, has continued to provide opportunities for athletic and personal growth through Special Olympics virtual sports training. Gail and Mark, Riley’s parents, have joined in to become his cheerleaders and teammates, training alongside him in their home.
Among the many virtual workout sessions offered by professional instructors, Riley was most enthusiastic to participate in the dance workshops hosted by program sponsor, Lenovo. For five of the 10 program weeks, athletes and volunteers signed in to weekly Bollywood, Chinese Kungfu Fan, Bhangra, K-pop and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” workshops.
“The Bhangra dance was easy to learn, but difficult,” said Gail, Riley’s mother. “Our whole family is getting a workout.”
From learning steps on the dance floor, to mastering footwork on Thursday evening soccer sessions, Riley has reveled in the connection he has established with fellow athletes outside of Carteret County and with the instructors leading them.
“On our end, Riley does not know what the instructors are seeing on their screen,” said Mark, Riley’s father. “Trainers are calling out athletes’ names and will spotlight athletes, reaffirming that they are all in this together.”
Understanding the scope of the coronavirus has been an obstacle for many Special Olympics athletes who are now training exclusively from their homes. As in-person training sessions have been paused for now, athletes are still learning to cope with the change.
“We are trying to help Riley understand that we are all wearing masks, we are all staying at home,” explained Gail. “It has helped so much that he is seeing other people doing the workouts on the Zoom calls. We feel more connected.”
Luckily for Riley and his parents, they have been able to take advantage of their idyllic location to enjoy each other’s company, both indoors and outdoors. Moving to Morehead City from Charlotte a couple of years ago was a definite adjustment for their family, but one they are making the best of.
“We spend a lot of time going to the beach and we are lucky to live on the coast,” said Gail. “Home is a comfort zone, but he is still connected to a training class, which has been great on so many levels, emotionally and physically.”
Some days, home is the beach, home becomes a dance studio, home becomes a soccer field. No matter the happenings of the outside world, home is still a place where Special Olympics athletes are feeling connected, valued and undoubtedly supported.