Special Olympics Iowa Summer Games return to Ames


Grant Tetmeyer/Iowa State Daily

Special Olympics athletes participate in the 100m dash event at the Lied Recreation Center. 

Christian Royston

AMES – For the first time in three years, Special Olympics Iowa was back in person over the weekend for the Summer Games.

As the sun rose Thursday morning, the Summer Games were preparing to begin. The opening ceremony kicked off in Des Moines, Iowa, with the final leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run. 

The flaming torch that would mark the event’s official start began its journey at the Department of Public Safety Building in downtown Des Moines, as police chiefs and sheriffs from across the state worked to bring the flame to Ames. Once the torch reached Ames, a Special Olympics Iowa athlete lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony in Hilton Coliseum.

Although the official beginning of the Summer Games was not until Thursday night, events kicked off earlier in Ames. With events scattered across the Iowa State campus, there was plenty of action throughout the day. 

Cycling, singles tennis, soccer and bocce, all before noon Thursday. Young athletes got an event of their own as the Little Feet Meet was hosted in the Lied Recreation Center, with many events going into the afternoon. 

Friday marked the busiest day of the event, as competitions kicked off as early as 8:15 a.m. Various competitions would go on throughout the day, and the Iowa State campus was lit up with competition and welcoming smiles.

A big contributor to the event’s success was the President and CEO of Special Olympics Iowa, John Kliegl. The last place one might expect to see a CEO is flipping burgers. However, Kliegl was making sure the athletes didn’t leave with an empty stomach.

The welcoming atmosphere began with Kliegl, as athletes and volunteers walked up with big smiles to chat with him about the fun day they had. 

The last two years were hard on most people, and the Special Olympics were no different. Due to the pandemic, the Summer Games were held virtually in 2020 and 2021. The Summer Games couldn’t be online forever, though, and saw its return to action over the weekend.

“We’re back. Just like the rest of the world is back, we’re back,” Kliegl said. “As you can see with the lines and excitement on people’s faces, they are all just happy to be back.”

After the two-year break, Special Olympics Iowa geared back up in January for the Winter Games. Everyone was excited to get things back to normal.

The Summer Games is the largest event of the year, with over 2,500 athletes and coaches and over 1,200 volunteers traveling to Ames for a weekend of competition. Of course, organization was crucial with that many people in one place.

“There’s been a little rust that had to be knocked off with taking off [two years], but that’s to be expected,” Kliegl said. “We’re very excited to be here and be back in action.”

Special Olympics Iowa prides itself on creating an Olympic atmosphere for its athletes. It starts with the Olympic village set up on the Iowa State campus and extends through all the events around Ames.

The athletes are housed in the Maple-Willow-Larch dormitories, where meals are provided to them between events. Being housed in the campus dorms gives the athletes easy access to events around the Lied Recreation Center, with shuttles for the events further away.

Overall, the event provided the athletes with great experiences, and the joy showed on everyone’s faces. Special Olympics Iowa has done a great job creating a friendly community, Kliegl said, that starts with the athletes.

The athletes don’t take anything for granted and work hard to get to where they are. That competition and pure love of their sport were on display at all the events across campus, and the Ames community welcomed all the athletes with open arms. 

The Ames community was very generous for putting on the summer games over the weekend, as many organizations around Ames support the Special Olympics.

“We get support year-round from not only Iowa State, Ames and the students, but the entire community comes out and supports the Special Olympics,” Kliegl said. “That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we’re staying here at Iowa State.” 

One big event in Ames that generated a lot of donations was the Ames Greek Polar Plunge, which raised over $225,000 for Special Olympics Iowa. Ames has been the home of the Summer Games in the past and helped to bring back that welcoming atmosphere.

It started with the lighting of the flame in Hilton Coliseum and ended with track events taking over Lied on Saturday morning. Though the lights have dimmed on all the events, the memories may last forever.

Although the Summer Games mark the end of the year for most athletes, there is still work to do for some. Special Olympics Iowa will be sending 120 athletes and coaches to Orlando, Florida, for the Special Olympics USA Games on June 4. These athletes will have another chance to compete and show off their hard work, and it will be a great way to continue their Olympic journeys.