Michael Lasater stood in an auxiliary gym Monday night at Lindenwood University-Belleville, smiling from ear to ear.
The 24-year-old Special Olympics athlete from Aviston had just spent two hours training with athletes from the school. He hit a home run during a softball game after showing off his basketball skills. He had worked up a good sweat while having a great time playing along side the Lynx athletes.
“I know we’re not on the same level as them,” Lasater said. “They might know more about some stuff, but we might know more than them about other stuff.”
A group of 22 Special Olympics athletes from the area and the college students shared plenty of laughs while they tested their skills at basketball, softball and tennis. While some athletes played inside, others used a perfect evening to try tennis for the first time.
Morgan White, southern regional manager of sports training for Special Olympics Illinois, was happy to accept an invitation by Lindenwood-Belleville students to come to campus and play.
“It’s huge,” White said. “A lot of these athletes are in group homes or maybe don’t really get out a lot. This gets them out of the group home and gets them out of the house. They get to go outside and hang out with their friends.”
Ryan Kaiser, Lindenwood-Belleville’s new director of athletics, said having the Special Olympics athletes on campus was a win-win for the school’s athletes.
“The fact that we get to engage with people who are fun and enthusiastic and love sports just as much, if not more, than we do, is great,” Kaiser said. “(The Special Olympians) were pretty excited about being able to play sports and it’s nice being able to rekindle some of that for some of our student-athletes as they get to interact with them throughout the day.”
The Special Olympians and Lynx athletes worked hand-in-hand throughout the night. During softball, members of the school’s softball team lent a hand in the field. On the tennis courts, Lindenwood students took their time to teach the Olympians how to swing the racquet and hit the ball. Each time a ball was hit, a smile — and sometimes a high-five — would follow.
Lasater, who didn’t compete in Special Olympics until he moved to the area last November, loves participating in Special Olympics. Since joining Special Olympics, he has won a state championship in basketball and recently finished seventh in the state in a bowling competition.
“I think it’s great,” Lasater said. “It gives people that maybe didn’t have a chance to do certain sports in school a chance to do it when they get older.”
Monday’s event was the first of at least two that officials hope to have during the school year. The school will welcome the group back on campus in the spring to work on some other sports.
“We want to make a long-term relationship with Special Olympics,” Kaiser said.