There's the glint of bright, shiny gold in South Sioux City, Neb., these days.
A unified floor hockey team based there brought home first-place medals from the Special Olympics World Winter Games held Jan. 29-Feb. 5 in South Korea.
What is floor hockey?
Think ice hockey played on a wooden floor. No ice or cold. No skates. The puck is felted and has a hole in the center.
It's an official sport for the Special Olympics World Winter Games, which are held every four years.
There are two types of floor hockey teams: traditional and unified. In traditional teams, all the members are Special Olympics athletes. A unified team is made up of eight Special Olympics athletes with intellectual disabilities paired with eight volunteer partners who play side by side.
The gold medal winners are based in South Sioux City, said Bill Wiseman, one of the coaches, because the city is centrally located for the players, who range in age from 17 to 35.
“These are high-functioning athletes,” Wiseman said.
The team was established about 17 years ago. Wiseman got involved when his younger son, Christopher, who has Down syndrome, joined the team, but this is the first year Wiseman has been a coach. His older son, Billy, is a partner on the unified team.
The trip to South Korea was a well-earned treat for all the unified players. They were chosen to be Team USA by Special Olympics officials because they had won numerous gold medals in regional and national competitions.
In December, the team — 16 players and four coaches — went to Lake Placid, N.Y., to train with the traditional team from Riverside.
Then it was on to PyeongChang, where more than 3,000 athletes from 111 countries came together under the motto “Together, We Can” the last week in January.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” said James Vanderbrink, a goalie who attends the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Not everyone can say they went to South Korea.”
It was quite an experience for all the players, Wiseman said. Most had never been out of the country.
They joined athletes in such sports as figure skating, Alpine and cross-country skiing, speed skating and snowboarding, as well as floor hockey. The American athletes were greeted by U.S. troops at Yongsan Garrison upon arrival in South Korea. Then there were the thrilling opening ceremonies at the Games in PyeongChang, said Emily Wilmes.
The 18-year-old attends Northeast Community College in Norfolk. She is a partner for and the only woman on the team. Teams can be made up of both genders, she said, but the players on the other teams in the World Games were overwhelmingly guys. However, Sweden did have two women on its team.
Wilmes, whose sister Jennifer is autistic, has been active with Special Olympics for several years. She started out bowling with her sister and joined floor hockey play about three years ago.
There are five players on the court at a time. Those five are a combination of athletes and partners, she said. They play for three minutes, then switch out to another five players.
Wiseman said Wilmes “got laid out” during one game; a hit knocked her flat on her back. She had to sit out the rest of that game but was back in action the next game.
The competition was Vanderbrink's favorite part of the Games. He admitted it's “nerve-wracking” to play goalie, but he loved playing in front of the cheering crowd, which included members of the traditional team, athletes from other sports and U.S. service members.
The team played seven games and won all seven, Vanderbrink said. The players beat Sweden 3-2 in the championship game.
“It was such a blessing we got chosen to represent the United States,” Wilmes said. “The gold medal was just the cherry on top.”
In preparation for the competition, Vanderbrink found himself making lots of trips from Omaha to his hometown.
Usually the team practices once a week, he said, but for the more than a year of preparation for the World Games, practices were just about every other day.
In addition to extra practices, Wilmes said, the team also had to raise funds. “We worked hard to raise money for the trip. We had an auction, a poker run, a raffle. There were lots of generous people.”
Generous indeed. Wiseman said the team raised about $30,000.
Vanderbrink and Wilmes agree the trip was worth every penny.
“It was an amazing experience. Just seeing the culture, meeting new people, making new friends,” Vanderbrink said.
“It was the trip of a lifetime.”
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