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Competition — And Community — Awaits Athletes At Missouri Special Olympics

Darla Hodgson

Special Olympic gold athlete Lynna Hodgson was two years old when the Hodgson family from outside of Oak Grove, Missouri, adopted her. The baby had been abused and suffered a permanent traumatic brain injury. She was able to speak parts of only two words: one syllable of her name and one syllable of "water."

Her path to adulthood was often lonely; her severe speech delay and subsequent shyness kept her from socializing.

"I don't think she was ever invited to one birthday party in high school or grade school," says her mother, Darla Hodgson. "There's such an isolation with kids who are special needs, and isolation for their families."

Lynna Hodgson's participation in Special Olympics in Lee's Summit changed all that. For the past five years she's been a multi-sport athlete, participating in track and field, softball, bowling, bocce ball and basketball. She won gold in the 100-meter dash at last year's games in Seattle.

"Special Olympics really helped me crack my shy shell. I have a lot of friends, and I'm more outgoing," she says.

Credit Darla Hodson
Lynna Hodgson won a gold medal in last year's Special Olympic games held in Seattle, Washington.

This weekend, Hodgson will compete in the basketball portion of the upcoming state Special Olympics in St. Joseph, Missouri.

According to her mother, the reason Special Olympics has been so good for Hodgson is that physical therapy, occupational therapy and social interactions are all part of the sporting experience. The Special Olympics community has also provided a home for the athlete and her family.

Darla Hodgson says she enjoys the "feeling of no one staring at your child or poking at them, making fun of them. There's such a feeling of unconditional love and acceptance."

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced at a House hearing that it wanted to cut $17.6 million in federal funding to the Special Olympics program. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that because the organization is private, not public, it should be funded privately. After a national outcry, on Thursday afternoon Trump reversed course and said the Special Olympics would be funded.

According to its website, Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization, with five million athletes in 172 countries. Missouri is home to 15,000 of those athletes.

"The friends I have, it's amazing because I didn't think I'd ever have this many friends," Lynna Hodgson says.

She's not only befriended other local athletes, but ones in other areas of the state and country who she's able to see during competitions.

Additionally, she's been invited to Washington, D.C., twice to speak before lawmakers about the importance of Special Olympics programming, which includes health and wellness courses called Healthy Athletes, as well as athlete leadership programs (ALPS).

"It's given her a purpose that I think she’s always searched for. Being aggressive on the basketball court was something we thought we'd never see. The term I'd want to use is being more assertive and being strong as a woman and not having to say 'I'm sorry' all the time," Darla Hodgson says.

Now that Lynna Hodgson is behaving more assertively and speaking freely, her family wants her to understand that her brain injury is nothing to apologize for.

Every year in the United States, 2.5 million people are diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury; 50,000 of those result in death, and 80,000 result in permanent damage.

"I'm passionate about her feeling that different is different; it's not bad, it's just different," Darla Hodgson says. "And to say 'I'm okay' and to feel safe."

Lynna and Darla Hodgson spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard.

State Special Olympics Indoor Games, Friday, March 29 through Sunday, March 31 at various sites in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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