Special Olympics athletes take their turns bowling at a practice at Taku Lanes on Sunday, Oct. 15. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

Special Olympics athletes take their turns bowling at a practice at Taku Lanes on Sunday, Oct. 15. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

At bowling alley, Special Olympians and league players unite

Juneau’s newly-formed unified Special Olympics bowling team has laid a lot on the line. For teammates Niall Johnson, Charlie Lewis, AJ Botion and Leroy George, the outcome of the state competition in Anchorage on Nov. 17, 18 and 19 is about more than bragging rights or personal pride.

A rare and coveted prize is at stake.

“We’re going to be placing bets for Taco Bell orders,” Botion said at a Sunday practice at Taku Lanes, their last of the year.

Juneau’s Special Olympics bowling team will hold their local tournament next weekend to decide who will go to the Special Olympics Alaska Bowling Tournament.

The four unified team members — two with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD) and two without — don’t miss a chance to have some fun.

Five frames into the practice’s first game, Lewis, a bowler with 35 years experience, lifted his ball high in the air, cocking his wrist nearly straight above his head.

His shot archs right to left. It’s a strike. Smiles, banter and fist bumps fly.

“We always joke around. They’re good for some heckling when they do better than I do, which is pretty often,” Botion said.

The unified team structure is unique for the Special Olympics. Two volunteer partners work with athletes with IDDs to train and set goals. At the Special Olympics Alaska Bowling Tournament, each will take turns bowling against other unified teams.

Unified sports are now offered throughout the world and have been a Special Olympics internationally sanctioned program since 1989. Major sporting events like the X Games and the NBA All Star weekend now hold unified Special Olympics events.

Special Olympics Alaska holds unified competitions for bowling, basketball, floor hockey, bocce and golf, said Jessica Bjornstad, Community Public Relations Fundraising Manager with Special Olympics Alaska.

Bjornstad was in town to attend a spaghetti feed fundraiser on Friday night. It’s one of the team’s biggest fundraisers of the year. She stuck around for Sunday’s practice to meet the athletes and talk with volunteers.

Unified teams are a huge “driving force,” behind Special Olympics, she said, as it’s the most hands-on way to get involved.

“Unified is just the best of both worlds. It not only is motivating for the athlete to have a partner that can help them set goals and in training, but it’s also just super motivating for the partner,” Bjornstad said.

To Lewis, it’s all about having fun. The athletes get a kick out of playing with competitive bowlers like him, while he and Botion get to bowl in a more laid-back league.

“It’s just the experience of bowling, being with people that aren’t normally in their other sports,” Lewis said. “They say all the time ‘We get to bowl with league bowlers,’ but I told Niall, ‘You’re in a league. I am in a league with you.’”

About 24 athletes participate in the bowling program. Twelve of them will travel to Anchorage, four each on a women’s team, a men’s team and the unified team.

Coach Lee Lewis has been with the team since 2001. Her sister Laine, a Palmer mother of a Special Olympics athlete, put her up to the coaching gig.

“One day at work I get this call from the Vice President of Special Olympics Alaska, and she goes, ‘I was just talking to your sister Laine and she said you would love to be the coach for Juneau,” Lewis said.

So she “gave it a go.” She’s been coaching the team ever since.

“I absolutely love it,” she said.

Her dedication has earned her the respect of her team, too. Nobody speaks over coach Lewis when she addressed the team from the floor prior to practice. When one athlete had a problem with another athlete bowling in the lane next to him, he brought it to Lewis, who reassured him she’d work things out.

Over at the girls table, Lewis’ coaching and the team’s hard work has paid dividends. The team, made up of Aubree Lewis, Michelle Boster and Kristina Brown, all scored strikes on the fourth frame.

Aubree Lewis — Charlie Lewis’ niece and Lee Lewis’ granddaughter — boasts a personal high score of 199. Teammate Brown claims a 206.

They’ve both been with the team for a few years.

“Practice makes perfect,” Brown said, before standing tall to take her turn.

Special Olympics by the numbers:

Special Olympians worldwide: 5.7 million

Special Olympians in Alaska: 2,000

Unified teammates: 1.4 million

Events held in 2016: 108,821

Alaska communities with teams: 10

Number of sports offered in Alaska: 14

Number of unified sports in Alaska: 5

Athletes invited to 2018 national games: 3,500

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

Athlete Carl Cogland Behnert gives a thumbs up to his Special Olympics teammates at Taku Lanes on Sunday, Oct. 15. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

Athlete Carl Cogland Behnert gives a thumbs up to his Special Olympics teammates at Taku Lanes on Sunday, Oct. 15. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

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