MMC Will Honor Special Olympians Wednesday, Thanks In Part To A Connection Between A Lancer Player And A Local Youth

February 11, 2019

Cora Van Olson - Yankton P&D

Mount Marty College’s (MMC) upcoming event spotlighting Special Olympics is inspired not only by the college’s commitment to community, but by the special friendship between a Mount Marty basketball player and a Special Olympics athlete.

The event is slated to begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, just prior to the MMC women’s basketball game with Dakota State University that night, with an announcement about Special Olympics. One of the Special Olympics athletes, Nathan Hebda, has been chosen to be the honorary ball boy for that game, and all the Special Olympics athletes and their families have been invited to attend the game for free.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the athletes and their parents to see Mount Mary and connect with other players, even another team coming to town,” said Erin Riibe, program director and associate professor of Recreation Management and Tourism for Mount Marty. “We are making Special Olympics T-shirts for both teams to wear for warmups that say ‘Special Olympics’ on the back. I believe in raising awareness on our campus, not only about Nathan, but also about all the other Special Olympics athletes, because it’s leading into their Yankton Area (Basketball) Tournament the Saturday following this game.”

The Southeast Area Special Olympics Basketball Tournament is hosted by Yankton Special Olympics each year, and is scheduled for Feb. 16 at the Summit Activities Center.

“We have invited all of the (Special Olympics) coaches, families and athletes to come for free to the game,” Riibe said. “Our athletic director, Chris (Kassin), he had suggested having our Lancer Landing, where all of our donors sit, open to them so they could gather with their families, have popcorn, snacks and beverages. So they will have a nice viewing area.”

According to Sheri Duke, head of the Yankton Special Olympics delegation, 60 people have already signed up.

“The following is going to be huge, and I had four or five of the coaches, multiple athletes and some of the parents come up and talk to me about how excited they were to go to a Mount Marty game and how grateful they were to us for providing this experience,” Riibe said. “They just love to be around athletics and positive role models,”

The idea for this special event came from a Mount Marty College professor, who noticed a special bond between sophomore Lancer Peyton Stolle and Hebda, a Stewart Elementary School student with Down Syndrome.

“Peyton and her relationship with Nathan was the inspiration for pursuing this,” said Rich Lofthus, MMC history professor and photographer. “At the baseball game last spring, I noticed that Peyton had brought her friend Nathan along, and I watched as she interacted with him, and the baseball team was very gracious with him. They brought him out on the field; they let him wear some of their gear. Prior to the game, they put a helmet on him and lifted him up in the huddle, and it was obvious that he was really enjoying the experience.”

Loftus and Stolle agreed to try to do something the following school year to raise awareness about Special Olympics.

“Then, at one of our basketball games last fall, we had a game where we brought awareness to cystic fibrosis, and I watched as each team woreT-shirts and the crowd was encouraged to learn about cystic fibrosis, and we raised some funds to combat the disease,” Lofthus said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can put two and two together, and have a night like that, where we recognize Special Olympics.’”

“Rich Lofthus brought it to our attention,” Riibe said. “He asked me, because I have been involved with Special Olympics and Ability Building Services (ABS) for 10 years now.”

Both Loftus and Riibe view the upcoming Special Olympics family event as an opportunity for MMC to connect with the community in a true expression of its core values.

Riibe has been involved in Polar Plunge events for Special Olympics and teaches Adapted Recreation and Adapted Physical Education classes at MMC.

“Every spring, we volunteer for the Special Olympics basketball unit, and (Loftus) pointed out that Peyton had a special relationship with Nathan,” Riibe said. “I had mentioned that it should be something that we showcase at one of our games, so we bring attention to individuals in our community who maybe have special needs, and just want to come and enjoy a game as well, because Nathan obviously does.”

With the support of his mother, Rena Hebda, Nathan attends every MMC home game that he can, according to Stolle, “Our whole team loves him,” Stolle said. “He was the ball boy earlier this year at a game, so he got to sit on the bench with us — and he was just a hoot. If you go back and watch the videos, there were girls coming off the court mad because of a play that had happened, and he would come and put his arm around them and they couldn’t help but smile after that.”

As ball boy, Nathan arrived before the game and helped pass out basketballs to the players during warmups. He got to go through the line and be introduced before the game, and he got to give out all high fives to all the players as they went through. He has agreed to be the ball boy again at this event.

Stolle, a Sioux Falls native who is studying exercise therapy and occupational therapy, met Nathan at a soccer tournament in which her father and step-mother were involved along with Nathan’s mother.

“We had heard that Nathan was a really, really big fan of Mount Marty, and when we found out I was going to be playing there, we had kind of a tie (to him),” Stolle said. “We met him at the soccer tournament, and he was so excited just knowing someone that was going to be playing there (the) next year, and from there, it took off. His mom made sure that he was at all of my games, even my senior year. Once she drove through a snow storm to bring him down to watch me play at Roosevelt.”

Mount Marty has organized other events to benefit Yankton’s special-needs population. Last month’s “Battle of the Badge” featured a scrimmage between some of students studying Special Education at MMC and the Special Olympics unified team.

“They actually got to play before one of the home games with some of the Mount Marty students,” Riibe said. “I think they actually won, too.”