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The Rapid City Journal - 7/6/2018

Editor's Note: Joe Burmeister is a unified partner with Matt Molin of the Black Hills Storm in the bocce competition at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this week. Burmeister is writing a daily blog on the goings on with the Black Hills area and Team South Dakota athletes.

A bizarre menagerie encircles my neck. How it so quickly became a badge of honor for me this week at the Special Olympics USA Games here in Seattle, I'm really not quite sure.

A potato. A checkered flag. An anchor. A dream catcher. A palmetto tree. A guitar pick. A magnolia. A fleur-de-lis. A cowboy boot with a spur. An apple. A crab. A torch. The phrase "Live Free Or Die". A giant ear of corn.

I'm sure you are wondering what in the heck I'm talking about.

The rest of Team South Dakota and myself are all here for a variety of reasons, some more obvious than others. First and foremost, we traveled here to provide an experience. Believe it or not, the competition piece of being here is actually secondary to providing a life experience.

Some of the athletes that we are working with have never boarded a plane. Some have rarely (if ever) gotten out of South Dakota. Some have never been away from their parents for an entire week. Some have never had the opportunity to pick and choose his or her own meals at a cafeteria each and every day for this much of an extended period--three times per day.

Think about your life and consider that for a moment. Think of all you would've missed out on, if you had lived your life in the shoes of one of these inspiring athletes.

The more obvious reason that we are here is to compete, to the best of our abilities. And with that comes learning to win with class, and to lose with dignity, with our heads held high. Always give your best effort, and you will emerge victorious, no matter what the scoreboard reads when you are done. Teamwork. All of the things that are inherently good in sports.

I have been a youth coach for 30 years--mostly baseball or softball--but I have worked with football and basketball as well. And I know that I talked about rainbows and butterflies yesterday, but the best model of the combination of competition and sportsmanship is on display here in Seattle this week. Special Olympics is sportsmanship at its purest level.

And then there is a third reason that we are here. Remember that eclectic list of items I listed above? Well this is the madness known as the "Special Olympics USA Games" State Pins.

We each are given an allotment to use as bartering material with athletes and coaches from other states. Yep. Behind the actual time spent in competition, the top activity here this week is trying to swap, trade and beg for as many of these different state pins as possible. I know it's driving you crazy now--those items I listed are featured on the state pins of Idaho, Indiana, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New York, Maryland, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nebraska, respectively.

Those are some of the more colorful ones. I actually have obtained 26 of the 49 different states (yes, I was properly educated--New Mexico has not attended this year's games). My favorites are Colorado (Go Broncos!) and South Carolina (cool design).

The problem is, now I am out of South Dakota pins to trade. So I'm out of the game. And there are still two more full days left before we fly home! After obtaining a pin, most of us put them on the identification lanyard around our necks.

It is a way to display our collections with pride, and also signals to others, 'Hey, that dude from South Dakota is trading.' And then if they need one of our pins, they come to me and we barter. Since yesterday afternoon, I have had to turn people away, because I cannot trade.

This drives me nuts, as I am a collector of 'things' back home. Atari 2600 cartridges, mint in boxes. Issues of the "Amazing Spider-Man" from current back to issue No. 32. John Elway football cards, 1,500 different. And now this. It drives me nuts to be out at only 26 states.

But there is an underlying reason these pins are so important here. They represent confidence for people with disabilities. They are also a teaching tool.

I am working with several athletes, but as you heard me talk about yesterday, I've spent most of my time with Matt Morin from here in Rapid City. He is the sweetest and gentlest man you will ever meet, but he is also painfully shy. When we both got into the pin trading game, it afforded me an opportunity to teach him some confidence and social skills.

He loves the pins and wanted to collect them, but he didn't want to talk to anyone to obtain them. I facilitated the first few trades for him, and then started to encourage him to branch out himself. Whenever we noticed a person from a state that he didn't have, I would nudge him and say, 'there's Arizona, go and ask him.'

Each time this process was repeated, he gained more and more confidence. By the time he got down to his final 10 pins, I was no longer needed in the process. Multiply this hundreds of times over with all of the athletes here, and you are teaching confidence to so many in need of this. Just another step to learning independence and acceptance.

Personally for myself, I have gained several new friends over the week because of these pins. The athletes that I have traded with all recognize me and call me coach and say hello each time we pass one another.

I've made 26 new friends, and that experience will be priceless for both of us. And so I can be proud of my efforts as a coach, but even more proud of my efforts as a teacher of life.

I guess another day is down here in Seattle. Now, if I can just figure out how to get that Hawaii pin.


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