Abu Dhabi. For a tight-knit group of enthusiastic 33 Uganda special athletes, the next few days could end up being a life-changing.
Starting today, the volleyball team that will participate in the unified event where athletes get aid from counterparts without intellectual disability, will step out to take part in their first matches in the Special Olympics World Games.
This is the first time the country has fielded a volleyball team at the Games that mark 50 years.
And in the weeks leading up to the Games, the energy of the players increased exponentially, along with their devotion to their coaches and have trained extensively for the highly anticipated event. Head coach Steven Onyait, 42, a Level One certified coach said: “The athletes have showed immense potential and they constantly talk about making us proud.”
Since 2008, when Onyait learnt of Special Olympics, he has been mobilising the eastern Uganda sector, the bedrock of Uganda’s volleyball since the late Dr. George Edward Aporu Okol popularized the game in the area.
In readiness for the Games – which end on March 21 – the Ugandan squad has won both of their divisioning games against Botswana and UAE with an identical 2-0 score.
Although he emphasises patience as key to handling these athletes, players spent about three weeks on court, improving their fitness, strength and technique. The 12-man team is a mixture of those with and without intellectual disabilities.
“Everyone is happy here and we have our eyes on the prize,” said team captain Daniel Ilakut (pic above), a 24-year-old centre with Nyero Rock Painters in Kumi. Ilakut also a trained referee, is a unified partner who has been impressed by the team especially 22-year-old Ibrahim Sessanga, who had never played volleyball before.
“He has taught me that anything in life is possible because even though his hands pain sometimes, he returns as quickly as possible and is continuously learning,” Ilakut said.
We’re a family
Vincent Odeke, a centre with Kampala Amateur Volleyball Club (KAVC) said he now considered the athletes part of his wider family.
The unified partner said it was the first time he has been involved in playing alongside people with intellectual disabilities and that it had been a life-changing experience.
“I have learnt to be even more compassionate because of them,” Odeke, a first year Business Administration student at UCU said.
“I hope the players have learnt something from us, but I believe that we have learnt more from them. These players have so much love for the game and our hearts as unified partners compel us to do more for the team.”
But Ilakut, who was part of the squad that failed to travel to the US for the 2015 Games said he wanted to win so he could shake hands with President Yoweri Museveni.
“We need gold to make our country proud,” he said. “We only see the President in newspapers and on TV so winning gold is our gate pass to meeting him in person. We are a good team and I know we will win.”