Joint effort helps Special Olympians, physical therapy students during pandemic

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 2:05 PM EDT
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BARRE, Vt. (WCAX) - Throughout the pandemic, Special Olympics Vermont has run programs to keep its athletes engaged, even if they can’t gather together.

Its Summerfest competition last year gave the athletes a chance to show off their basketball, soccer and bocce skills. But what about during the winter months, when many of the Special Olympians are confined to their homes? A joint effort helped Special Olympians keep busy while indirectly teaching lessons to physical therapy students.

are an active pair of sisters, but the last year has been tough for these Special Olympic athletes.

“Hard time during the pandemic,” Faith DeFelice said. “But Special Olympics saved the day!”

Special Olympics’ latest virtual program during the pandemic is called the Triple Combine Fitness Challenge, a 10-week at-home competition in which the athletes pick three exercises to do to keep active and healthy, earning points along the way.

“The triple challenge came right at the perfect time because it was a long winter,” said Sherri Bean, Grace and Faith’s godmother.

Reporter Scott Fleishman: What type of things are you doing during the challenge?

Faith DeFelice: Pushups... squats... jumping jacks.

“Overall, it’s just really great to interact with them and see them progress through these past couple of weeks,” Carolyn Snell said.

Snell and other students in UVM’s doctor of physical therapy program are working with 40 Special Olympians, checking in on them virtually, making sure they’re using proper form and techniques. This also gives the students an opportunity to practice telemedicine skills and gain an increased understanding of people with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s really navigating that communicational barrier and really getting information across in a way that they can comprehend and internalize for their goals,” said Scott Avery, a UVM doctor of physical therapy student.

Scott Fleishman: Do the students say anything to you?

Faith DeFelice: Good job.

UVM’s doctor of physical therapy program has officially been working with Special Olympics Vermont for five years. When the pandemic hit, the two sides didn’t want to lose that connection, so they came up with the fitness challenge as a way to keep the relationship growing.

“We know that our athletes are experiencing high rates of social isolation and we want to do anything we can to keep them engaged, even if it’s through a virtual platform like this,” said Sarah Lange of Special Olympics Vermont.

“It’s just been a win for the students in their learning. It’s a win for the program keeping the learning objectives moving along and we’ve all have that goal of promoting the health outcomes of these young, very fit athletes,” said Paula Smith of the UVM doctor of physical therapy program.

“It is tough, sweat,” Faith DeFelice said.

Thanks to a perfect partnership and that Special Olympics spirit, athletes like the DeFelice sisters got through the last few months as easy as one, two, three.

A virtual medal ceremony is being planned for the athletes before the month is over.

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