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Celebrating Special Olympics athletes Alyssa Sims and Michael Reed

Alyssa Sims from Teaneck, N.J.

Alyssa Sims could fit snugly in her father’s hand at birth. She was about the size of his snow glove. Born two-and-a-half months premature by cesarean section, she had to fight for life from the moment of delivery. Sims and her mother suffered from a prenatal condition that came close to being fatal for both of them. As a result, Sims’ lungs and central nervous system didn’t function properly, requiring a more than two-month stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Despite her challenging start in life, Sims’ mother Herriott said progress came quickly. In fact, by the time Sims was a toddler, it was clear she would excel beyond the hopes of her loving family.

That tiny baby, now a 30-year-old woman, has become a world-class Special Olympics athlete. “I remember when she didn’t have the courage to do that [gymnastics],” her father Rudolph said. “We were not expecting that she would do that well in gymnastics. It didn’t seem practical, when she approached us about it. She blew us all away.”

Now, Sims will compete as a member of Special Olympics Team USA at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles this summer. Expectations are high for Sims, who earned four gold medals and one silver at last year’s 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey.

People have called Sims the Gabby Douglas of Special Olympics, a comparison to the Olympic gold medalist that she finds both flattering and anxiety inducing. Sims idolizes Douglas, who at 16 became the first African-American female gymnast to win the team and all-around individual categories in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In the gym, Sims exhibits a mostly steady form on the tumble track — with running starts she confidently attempts front handsprings, sticking some and landing off-balance on others. When Sims moves to the floor exercise, the manifestations of cerebral palsy — a condition impairing fluid physical movement, sensation and cognition — are more apparent. Even to the untrained eye, landing after a punch front tumble is decisively more challenging for her. Sims’ mother said that by age 5, it was clear cerebral palsy wouldn’t hold her daughter back from everyday physical play and certain skills that required precision.

“Doing gymnastics is really demanding on your body, especially as you get older,” Sims’ coach Nicole Capouet said. “You have to do the same skills for months or years before you actually accomplish it. You have to overcome your fears and Alyssa has that quality.”

Sims competes in the balance beam, uneven bars, floor exercise and vault. It’s the vaulting — a sprint down a runway onto a springboard and a leap over the vault table — that’s most daunting for her.

“That’s really hard,” she said. “But I’d like to improve all over. I like to give my all to everything. Go big or go home.”

Sims met her fellow gymnasts representing the United States at the World Games last October at a training camp in Indianapolis. Special Olympics Team USA is a 491-member delegation and will compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles with more than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries. It will all be broadcast on ESPN, which excites Sims.

“Now it’s going to be bigger, with more pressure,” she said. “But I’ll go out there and do what I know how to do.”

 

Michael Reed from Somerset, N.J.

Have you ever been on the front of a Wheaties box? Michael Reed has.

In 2014, Reed achieved something few athletes — pro, collegiate, Olympic, or otherwise — achieve: He was featured on a Wheaties box, when ShopRite and General Mills created a limited edition, commemorative Wheaties box in celebration of the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. 

“It was a real cool thing,’’ Reed said. “It was a great honor to make the Wheaties box, a blessing.’’

Reed, 27, has participated in Special Olympics for the past six years. He is no stranger to the spotlight, as his basketball team took gold at the 2010 Special Olympics USA Games in Lincoln, Neb., and again at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. Reed was also one of only a handful of Special Olympics athletes in the world selected to play in the 2012 NBA Cares — Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball game as part of NBA All-Star weekend.

Damian Lillard of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, a Special Olympics Global Ambassador who coached against Reed at the NBA Cares event, said, “He joined some of the greatest athletes of our time like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. This accomplishment shows that we are a more accepting world and that ‘all’ people are capable of athletic success.”

An only child, Reed was raised by his grandmother and endured bullying in school as a child. He eventually transferred to and graduated from the Midland School and has since gone on to be employed. He’s always had an aptitude for hoops, and is considered to be one of the top players in the state.

“He’s really good. If he played against non-Special Olympics athletes he’d hold his own,” his coach Neil Hudes, said. “He shoots three-pointers. He’s great under the boards. He jumps well. He plays good defense. He dribbles with both hands.”

But talent alone is not why Reed was selected for the Wheaties box.

“He has one of the best attitudes you’re ever going to see, not only for an athlete but also for a human being,’’ Hudes said. “He’s always engaging. Some of the other players on his team are not as gifted, have more significant issues than he does, and he's always helping them out. If we play a team where the athletes might not be as talented, he wants them to succeed so maybe he doesn't play as hard. His attitude is just phenomenal.’’ 

Always thinking of the team over himself, Reed has said, “I’d rather make a beautiful assist than score a basket.”

Reed was naturally drawn to basketball and Special Olympics: “I love the hard work and the camaraderie. You learn things about your teammates. You learn how to play with them. They learn to love you. You learn to love them. It’s like a family.’’

WWE Celebrates the accomplishments of two Special Olympics New Jersey athletes this February in honor of Black History Month. WWE served as the Official Production Partner of the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games.

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