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Special Olympics program rebounds in Barrow

Special Olympics athletes in Barrow strutted their stuff in Bethel earlier this month at the 3-on-3 Unified Basketball Tournament, earning a second-place finish out of eight schools competing. And for those involved in the Barrow program, they're hoping this latest tournament is the start of something big.

Lead by coach Jeremy Goodwin, the team consisted of athletes Emily Brower, Roseanne Edith Maupin and Dalton Kippi. The tournament was set up so that two Special Olympic athletes were joined by one 'partner' on the court at all times. Barrow's partner athletes were Paige and Kevin Goodwin, with Ryan Reynolds stepping in as assistant coach and Cheryl Brower attending as a chaperone.

With a $6,000 nudge from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Barrow crew was able to travel to Bethel for the event, where they met the hometown team in the championship match. It was a close-fought game but Bethel overcame the Arctic contingent.

The Special Olympics program in Barrow has a long history, though events and participants don't arise every year.

Jeremy Goodwin, who is the athletics director for the North Slope Borough School District and has coached in Barrow for two decades, took on the role as Special Olympics' coach for the first time this season.

"I jumped at the chance," Goodwin said last week. "A lot of things happened this year as far as trying to heighten the Special Olympics program in Barrow."

Goodwin hopes to boost the Unified Tournament by making it a widespread event with games in Bethel, Barrow and Kotzebue. By 2017, he said, the goal is have a Special Olympics tournament that coincides with the Alaska Schools Activities Association state basketball tournament.

"That would be so wonderful for those kids," Goodwin said. "I'd really like to see this go further. This tournament gave these students the opportunity to shine in front of a crowd."

Goodwin said he and the students are already looking forward to next year.

Schools that competed in Bethel at the Unified Tournament were Atmautluak School, Barrow High School, Bethel High School, Gladys Jung Middle School, Kwethluk School, Nunapitchuk School, Quinhagak School and West Anchorage High School. A total of 34 athletes, 24 partners and 26 chaperones and coaches gathered for the event.

"This was one of the best accomplishments all year," Goodwin said.

Once the crew arrived back in Barrow with their silver medals, a ceremony was held at the high school to congratulate the hometown Whalers. But the trip to the Y-K Delta was more than a basketball tournament, Goodwin added. They spent a couple of nights in Anchorage, soaking in big city life.

"For the students, and the community, this was a wonderful opportunity and I hope we can do more here in Barrow," Goodwin said.

In the '80s and '90s, Barrow had a strong Special Olympics program, according to Jim Balamaci, president and CEO of Special Olympics Alaska, but numbers have fluctuated over the past decade or two.

"Just in the last year, we've made a concerted effort to get Barrow to be part of this basketball weekend in Bethel, and that was very successful," Balamaci said last week. "Barrow has been very supportive of Special Olympics but the numbers have been up and down. Hopefully this tournament will help launch a long-term partnership between Special Olympics and the Barrow community."

Special Olympic programs like the Unified Tournament bring students closer together and rally the whole community, he added. Special Olympics Alaska has both community and school programs for people with intellectual disabilities, and currently has about 60 schools throughout the state involved.

"There is a lot more inclusion and a lot more acceptance in a school," Balamaci said. "That happens in both rural and urban settings."

Athletes, coaches and supporters of all abilities building friendship and partnership through sport is the message that Special Olympics has been working to apply for decades, he added.

"And we're really motivated to get more going in Barrow."