SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — The spirit of unity was alive and well in Santa Clarita when Special Olympics athletes from Team Southern California went head to head in a friendly basketball game coached by WWE Superstar Mark Henry and WWE Diva Alicia Fox.
The abbreviated, running-clock contest was fast-paced and high-energy, with WWE announcer Renee Young emceeing and SCVTV Sports Director Dave Caldwell providing play-by-play. After a brief meet-and-greet between Superstars and players, the game began in earnest with a tip-off between honorary coaches Henry and Alicia. Alicia not only defeated Henry in the tip-off, but Team Fox maintained a lead throughout most of the first half, though a pair of clutch baskets from Team Henry as the clock hit zero kept the score tight at 12-10 going into halftime.
At the half, Special Olympics Southern California CEO Bill Shumard began a presentation extolling the upcoming Special Olympics World Games that Southern California will host next year, including an introduction of Special Olympian Marcia Hickman. WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon addressed the athletes next, offering words of encouragement in advance of the World Games.
"Like Marcia, who's going to be competing in the World Games, all of you are heroes. All of you are Superstars," said McMahon. "You are the ones that inspire us to train just a little bit harder, to push ourselves just a little bit harder in the ring. It's your dedication and your passion that fuels all of us here at WWE."
After some additional words from Henry — himself a former Olympic athlete who thanked the parents for supporting their children's passion — and Alicia, Hickman then took to the floor to draw names for a free-throw contest. The shootout featured Team USA athletes as well as Henry and Fox, and was ultimately won by Alicia's squadron.
The second half of the game saw Team Fox complete a clean sweep of the day, surviving a last-minute rally by Team Henry to win with a final score of 23-21. No matter the victor, however, everyone agreed the day was a success for all involved.
"I feel great!" said Alicia after the big win. "I feel energized, I feel motivated. Those athletes really worked hard to accomplish all the things that they've accomplished. It was really cool to be on the team and compete through the day."
"It was fantastic to watch," said Special Olympics Southern California Board of Directors member William Vogt, who was in attendance at the event. "Just to see the smiles on everybody's faces; not just on the court but in the stands."
"Man, this warms your heart to see people giving so much effort," agreed Henry, who preached a positive, "keep playing" attitude to his team when they were fighting from a deficit. "Winning and losing is not the thing with me, it's seeing them participate and seeing the guys have a good time."
"It's always so fun to be able to get out and participate with anything involving Special Olympics," said Renee. The multitalented WWE announcer has lent her skills to hosting Special Olympics events all across the country, though she has one particular wish for the next time she attends an event.
"I think I'd like to be a coach!" she said. "It's fun being able to go out and host the event ... but to be a coach would be [great]."
"It's so exciting to see great organizations like WWE partner with Special Olympics," said Vogt, who believes the event bodes well for next year's World Games. "It just brings awareness, and it's a shared interest we have in the inclusion of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities."
But the person who may have had the most fun? None other than The World's Strongest Man.
"Anytime we do these events, I always request, 'Don't leave me out,' because I love the fact that I get to come out and give hugs and hang out with guys and girls and have a good time," said Henry. "We put smiles on faces and there were a lot of smiles going on today."