Tampa Bay athletes shine at Special Olympics

Omaries Rivera-Perez loves music, fashion, coloring books, her rat terrier, Luna, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the 29-year-old member of the Specially Fit Foundation and Academy lives for the Special Olympics.

Throughout the year, Rivera-Perez trains every Saturday at BayCare HealthHub with her fellow athletes and coaches. When she isn’t training there, she exercises and runs at home.

“I’ve had the privilege of coaching Omaries for over three years and she is often cheering on her teammates and motivating them to do their very best," Specially Fit Academy coach Leigh Weaver says. "Her commitment, perseverance and dedication are truly an inspiration to everyone around her and I couldn’t be more proud.”

On March 25th at Jesuit High in Tampa, Rivera-Perez was among more than 600 athletes who competed in the Special Olympics Hillsborough-Pinellas Summer Games, winning first-place ribbons in the shot put and 4 x 100 unified relay race and third in the 100-meter run.

Athletes competed in athletics, bocce, cheerleading, cycling, soccer and volleyball, with some advancing to regional competitions in April.

Through the Special Olympics, Rivera-Perez started training and competing in powerlifting, winning first place in the Special Olympics 2019 State Games in Orlando.

A grand testament to her dedication and talent came when she was selected for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, where she won silver in the shot put and  400-meter run and bronze in the 4 x 400 relay run.

"Special Olympics helps Omaries with socialization, self-esteem and physical fitness," her mother, Mariel Perez, says. "She just loves helping her fellow athletes and Special Olympics just makes her happy!"

Participating in Special Olympics for over 10 years, Rivera-Perez moved with her mom, dad and younger sister, Marielys, from Puerto Rico in 2011.

"We wanted to provide better services and opportunities for Omaries," Mariel Perez says. "Here, Omaries attends LYF Inc. (Learning Your Functions) five days a week, takes art and music lessons and sings at church services but Special Olympics is her gold star."

Worldwide, there are 5.5 million athletes in 193 countries with intellectual disabilities involved in Special Olympics programs and more than 1.1 million coaches and volunteers.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver initially launched the Special Olympics in the late 1960s in response to the unjust and unfair treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. The first Special Olympics were held in 1968.

Decades later, the Special Olympics' original motto still stands:  “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

For more information on how to get involved as an athlete, coach or volunteer, go to Special Olympics Florida.

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Read more articles by Kimberly DeFalco.