Coach Katie Sullivan (back row, far left) has coached the Juneau Rebounders in the Special Olympics for the last decade. (Courtesy Photo | Katie Sullivan)

Coach Katie Sullivan (back row, far left) has coached the Juneau Rebounders in the Special Olympics for the last decade. (Courtesy Photo | Katie Sullivan)

Parole officer gives back through Special Olympics

For eight hours every weekday at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, she’s simply known as “PO Sully.”

But on the weekends, to a group of young adults on the basketball court, she goes by a slightly different name: “Coach Sully.”

For the past decade, Katie Sullivan has helped coach a basketball team of 10-14 young adults with special needs for the Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games. The team, dubbed the Juneau Rebounders, practices once a week for close to three months in the spring to prepare for the June event. The Games attracted six different teams this year, and like the past three summers, the Juneau Rebounders took home the gold medal, defeating Tanana Valley Hawks 30-25 in the championship.

Sullivan lights up whenever she talks about the team.

“It’s just a little reality check to count my blessings,” Sullivan said.

The 58-year-old moved to Juneau 30 years ago and has spent the vast majority of that time in corrections. Sullivan spent over 15 years working at Johnson Youth Center before joining the LCCC staff in 2008 as a parole officer.

Sullivan’s desire to help others was fostered by her parents at a young age while growing up in Hayward, California. Her father, Gene, an elementary school principal, integrated hearing-impaired students into his school upon the closure of a deaf school.

“When he would do Christmas concerts or something, everybody’s up there signing, you couldn’t tell who’s hearing-impaired and who’s not because everybody learned to sign at his school,” Sullivan said.

Her mother, Dorothy, taught a neighbor with intellectual difficulties how to read in her spare time.

“You just meet other people that struggle with something and you go, ‘Maybe I can help them out,’” Sullivan said.

While working at the Johnson Youth Center, Sullivan heard about the Special Olympics basketball team from a coworker and decided to get involved. It was a good fit. Not only did Sullivan understand the game — she played two years of college basketball — she was also well-versed in adaptive physical education. After studying recreational therapy at Chico State University, Sullivan worked in Santa Clara schools teaching adaptive PE.

“So that’s where it kind of got a little bit more (about) skills versus just having fun and play ball,” Sullivan said.

With a focus on skill-building, it wasn’t long before the team found success at the Summer Games.

“I remember the first year and then it’s like, ‘OK, let’s work harder,’ and then we got a bronze,” Sullivan said. “I know one year we got a gold and the next year we went to a silver and I’m like, ‘It’s OK, things happen, and we can just keep working.’ And then we’ve got the four golds in a row.”

In a testament to Sullivan’s work with the team, many of the players come back every year. Matt Jones’ son and daughter, Andres and Carmen Jones, have been playing for “Coach Sully” for about the past eight years.

“She totally does a great job of taking people’s skills wherever they’re at and building on their skills and encouraging them,” Matt Jones said.

Sullivan doesn’t mind being a little strict on the players if she needs to, benching a player if they ball-hog. But that’s just because she’s looking out for the whole team.

Regan Tweedy, Sullivan’s coworker for the past 25 years, said her friend is a perfect fit for Special Olympics.

“When you’re working with someone with special abilities, you can’t always have those real firm boundaries because it’s not a level playing field,” Tweedy said. “So she gets more out of these athletes than probably anyone else could because she has that compassionate heart. I think most of her is heart. If you were to weigh out (Sully): ‘OK, there’s skin, there’s some other stuff, but she’s got such a big heart.”

Whether it’s working with inmates or Special Olympic athletes, Sullivan knows that change doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to offer positive reinforcement.

“I enjoy corrections because you can see some change in folks,” Sullivan said. “We all have some tough times in our lives. We’re all good people, some of us just make poor choices and struggle for a bit but you can get better.”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or Follow Empire Sports at @akempiresports.

More in News

(Juneau E
Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Ron Ekis (wearing red) and Dakota Brown order from Devils Hideaway at the new Vintage Food Truck Park as Marty McKeown, owner of the property, shows seating facilities still under construction to other local media members on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New Vintage Food Truck Park makes year-round debut

Two of planned five food trucks now open, with covered seating and other offerings in the works.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

An aerial view of mud and forest debris that buried a stretch of the Zimovia Highway a day after a landslide struck an area of Wrangell on Nov. 21. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
Authorities in Wrangell suspend search for boy missing after deadly landslide

Authorities have suspended the search for the 12-year-old boy still missing following… Continue reading

Steve Bradford (left) and Mark Kissel, both vice presidents of the Riverside Condominiums Homeowners Association, discuss repairs to two of the complex’s buildings on Aug. 9 as a bulldozer places rock fill under a corner of one building exposed by erosion during record flooding of the Mendenhall River on Aug. 5. Repairs to both buildings ultimately were successful. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau Community Foundation offering pool of $28,300 in relief funds to Suicide Basin flood victims

Deadline to apply is Dec. 31, funds will be divided among applicants.

Key Bank was one of the banks victimized by a Juneau man who was sentenced Tuesday to two-and-a-half years in prison for stealing nearly $580,000 multiple banks and credit unions between 2020 and 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Former Juneau armored guard sentenced to 2½ years for stealing from banks, credit unions

Austin Nolan Dwight Rutherford, 29, convicted of stealing nearly $580,000 between 2020 and 2022.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Monday, Dec. 4, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The Juneau School District is entangled in a dispute with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development about supplemental funds the city provides for what the district calls non-instructional purposes such as after-school programs and pupil transportation. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)
State seeks to change rules for ‘local contribution’ funds to school districts beyond the ‘cap’

Education department abandons challenge under existing state law to Juneau, other districts.

A chart shows the proposed plans for each of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s nine ferries next summer under a schedule open for public comment until Dec. 19. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
Proposed ferry schedule for next summer looks a lot like this year’s — with one possible big exception

Cross-Gulf sailings will resume if enough crew hired; AMHS begins two-week public comment period.

Most Read