Squads of seniors and people with disabilities play their first Maryland bocce tournament

Together, good times roll

November 15, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

Bobby Ross' squad was goofing off a little too much for his taste. His teammates had taken photos, talked and laughed throughout a bocce match involving teams made up of senior citizens and developmentally disabled athletes.

But Ross, 71, driven by a competive itch, wanted to make sure his teammates were aware that this was the last round, and the game, with his team up just one point, was on the line.

"Let's concentrate because this is it. I don't want anyone sitting down, and stop taking pictures," Ross said yesterday during a tournament at the Clarence Du Burns Arena in Canton.

His playful scolding drew laughs, but apparently it worked, helping to propel his team to victory and an eventual silver medal in the competition.

Tournament organizers said it was the first time senior citizens joined Special Olympics athletes to play in a bocce tournament in Maryland. And, they do not expect it to be the last.

There is also a push to make bocce part of the state Special Olympics in Towson in June.

Bocce, a pinless game similar to lawn bowling with four to eight people per team, developed in its current form in Italy.

Yesterday's tournament featured 12 senior citizens from Oak Crest and Charlestown retirement communities. They combined with developmentally disabled adults from the St. Peter's Learning Center and the Arc of Baltimore to form five teams in two divisions.

Mike Bovino, who is in charge of Adult Program Initiatives for the Special Olympics/Baltimore City, sees similarities between the divergent groups.

Bovino says that many developmentally disabled adults live regular lifestyles and transport themselves to and from work daily. But they feel socially isolated when it comes to sports. Typically, they are not asked to play on the company softball team.

Similar issues

"Seniors have the same type of issues," Bovino said. "They're sedentary, challenged by a lack of physical fitness. Sometimes there is a social disconnect if their children don't live in the area. So we thought, let's bring these two groups together."

The teams have practiced once a week since September, and bonds have formed between the players.

Tommy Koch, 76, praised the collaborative effort. Koch, a Charlestown resident, rooted for Melissa Hastings as she prepared to roll, though the two were on opposite teams.

Hastings, in turn, sporting an Arc T-shirt, cheered all good shots by Koch's squad, prompting a look of bewilderment and rebuke from her unofficial team captain, Ross.

"Ya'll are not supposed to be cheering for the other team," Ross said.

Later, Hastings replied, "I love to be the best at everything. But that is OK for today. I just love to work with people."

Incorporating Special Olympics athletes in regular games is a relatively new idea locally, said Bovino.

Unified Sports

Dubbed Unified Sports, the program is offered throughout Special Olympics chapters nationally, pairing mentally or physically disabled athletes with nondisabled peers of similar abilities. The initiative has been around since the mid-1980s.

Sports include golf, figure skating and basketball.

Special Olympics of Maryland serves 10,000 athletes statewide.

"In pairing people with disabilities with people without disabilities in fun sports, you don't see somebody with a disability, you see them as a teammate," said Sly Bieler, director of day services for Arc of Baltimore.

It is how Ross viewed Special Olympic athletes on his and the opposing teams. Nobody was spared his comments.

"I love to talk," Ross said. "I love to have fun, kidding with everybody. That's how everybody knows me. Me and my wife, she is the same way, nothing but mouth. Playing this game, it lets me do my specialty, talk and have fun."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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