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A victory more precious than gold

Christian coach, students help Special Olympics volleyball team take top prize on a world stage.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Tori Bartels knows what a win feels like.

Last year her Lady Eagles volleyball squad finished 24-12, and a late-season surge carried them into the semifinals of the league tournament.

But a recent victory for the Faulkner University coach felt extra special.

“I saw 3,000 fans chanting ‘USA! USA!” said Bartels, whose Team Alabama took the gold medal in its division at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. “I don’t think there can be any better coaching experience than that.”

Even more ecstatic were her players, who danced around the court of UCLA’s Edwin W. Pauley Pavilion and hugged each other after the come-from-behind win over a team from the African nation of Botswana. 

Team Alabama “played with one heart,” Bartels said. “They knew they weren’t just playing for the USA, but for everybody who couldn’t get on the court with them.”

The victory was more precious than gold, she said, because “they were able to accomplish something they were told they could never accomplish.”

Tori Bartles yells encouragement to her team of Special Olympians and partners from Faulkner University. The students created special bonds with the Olympians, she said. (PHOTO BY TORI BARTELS) ‘i just felt I couldn’t say no’
Bartels, a member of the Landmark Church of Christ in Montgomery, is in her 11th season with Faulkner. The 3,500-student university is associated with Churches of Christ. 

In August 2014, the coach and some of her players volunteered during the university’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day. 

Shriver, the sister of former President John F. Kennedy, launched a humanitarian effort in the 1960s that became the Special Olympics — now the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

At Faulkner, representatives of Alabama Special Olympics were impressed with Bartels’ involvement and offered her the chance to coach a “unified team,” which pairs six Special Olympians with partners who compete alongside them in an alternating pattern on the court. 

Unified teams from Alabama and New Jersey, plus a traditional team from Michigan, represented the U.S. in the World Games, which brought more than 7,000 Special Olympians representing 177 nations to California.

Though it would interfere with her duties to Faulkner’s team, Bartels said, “I just felt I couldn’t say no.” 

What’s more, all of her players said, “How can we tell you not to do this?”

Victorious, members of Team Alabama leave the volleyball court as their fans cheer. (PHOTO BY TORI BARTELS) loving, open, humble people
Faulkner did more than support its volleyball coach. The university provided the six partner players for Team Alabama — students Jonathan Goodrum, Douglas Hamilton and Carter Moles and football players Javonte Drinkard, Jalen Ragland and Xavier Tricher. 

Moles, the team captain, became close friends with his athlete, Will Horner. He called the experience “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

“I felt bad a lot of times because … they gave me more than I was able to give them,” Moles said. “I saw men enjoying literally every second of life even though the world would say they have nothing to be happy about. I saw them work hard to do the best they can in everything they do. 

“The traits they lived out and the genuine love they showed everybody in their life was inspirational.

“If everybody could see life like Special Olympic athletes do, the world would be such a better place.”

Bartels said it was uplifting to watch the Faulkner students “pour themselves into someone who is intellectually challenged,” adding that the experience will help shape the students into compassionate leaders.

The Special Olympians “taught us more about loving and being open, humble people than (I have learned) in the 36 years I have been alive,” she said.
living out their prayers
Before every match, Team Alabama prayed.

“It was noticed and set us apart,” Bartels said. “It was not about our glory, but (God’s) glory.” 

The team lived out its prayers, showing “spirit in supporting the weakest,” she said. “That experience will live forever.”

WichtermanTwo Faulkner volleyball players, Madison Wichterman and Sarah Dubberly, served as assistant coaches. Wichterman previously served as a partner on a unified team in her native Florida. 

In high school, Wichterman helped students with intellectual disabilities get involved in campus life and activities. The school now presents an award in her name to students who promote the inclusion and acceptance of students with special needs. 

Wichterman said she enjoyed the coaching experience — and watching fans stop the team for photos and autographs.

“It was so special and inspiring to see our guys being celebrated for their accomplishments rather than looked down upon because of their disabilities,” Wichterman said. 

It was equally humbling “to know that you are providing each athlete the ability to defy stereotypes and prove to the world how much they have to offer.”
‘paid in joy, love and hope’
Bartels plans to stay involved with Special Olympics and will oversee the organization’s state volleyball tournament in December.

Her advice for those considering getting involved: “Do it!”

“Serving others is an amazing thing,” she said, “but serving with the Special Olympics is even better because you are paid in joy, love and hope.”

After her team won gold in Los Angeles, the Special Olympics USA delegation chose Bartels to represent her country in the closing ceremonies as the coach who best exemplified the spirit of the games.

The members of Team Alabama, including six Special Olympians and six students from Faulkner University, receive gold medals for their victory in the World Games. (PHOTO BY TORI BARTELS)

The experience was “very surreal,” she said, but stressed that the victory was a team effort.

“I couldn’t have done it without my assistants,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been a team without them and the 12 guys. They had to play. 

“They’re the ones who did all the hard work. They are the ones who inspired 3,000 people to get on their feet and chant, ‘USA!’ 

“It’s not about me.”

Filed under: National People

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