Special Olympics Florida Announces Leadership Award Winners

CLERMONT, Fla., Nov. 02, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Special Olympics Florida is thrilled to announce the winners of its annual Leadership Awards.

The awards, which honor service to the Special Olympics movement, were presented at Special Olympics Florida’s 2023 Champions Gala on October 28, at the Omni Resort Orlando at ChampionsGate.

Here are this year’s winners:

Athlete of the Year 
This award is presented to an athlete whose life exemplifies courage, generosity, joy, and athletic skill. They demonstrate superior leadership, dedication to teammates, sportsmanship, and a commitment to helping others. 

This year’s honoree is Andrew Ahearn of Pasco County. Ahearn, an Athlete Leader and Health Messenger, has been part of Special Olympics Florida for more than 15 years. A talented and determined triathlete, he has competed in the Special Olympics USA Games, the World Games and the Special Olympics European Open in Slovakia. Ahearn volunteers regularly at SOFL competitions and fundraisers. He is the consummate teammate, cheering on and encouraging his fellow athletes at each and every event. He is a wonderful Special Olympics Florida ambassador. 

Coach of the Year  
This award is given to a coach who has shown sportsmanship, understanding and compassion in the truest spirit of coaching; has obtained certification in at least one sport; and is actively coaching Special Olympics Florida athletes.  

The 2023 Coach of the Year is Amos Spires of Washington County. Spires is a Tier 3 coach, overseeing multiple sports at the Washington Academy of Varying Exceptionalities (WAVE). He is deeply committed to the Special Olympics mission and to ensuring his athletes have the best experiences possible.

He was the catalyst for bringing Young Athletes, Little Elites, and Rising Stars to WAVE. He regularly gives athletes rides to and from competitions and, when his athletes were invited to compete in Navarre, he persuaded his school to pay for rooms near the water, saying, “they all grew up in Florida, but some of them have never seen the beach.” Spires’ heartfelt dedication to his athletes makes him an excellent choice for Coach of the Year.

Unified Partner of the Year
This award goes to a Unified partner who exemplifies an attitude of social inclusion and who is dedicated to improving the skills, fitness, confidence and friendships of our athletes. Unified partners are people without intellectual disabilities who train and compete alongside Special Olympics athletes.

The Unified Partner of the Year is Lance Duch. As a member of the University of Florida Special Olympics College Club, Duch has embraced the principle of “Play Unified, Live Unified.” Over the past three years, he has been a Unified partner in both basketball and flag football. He has served as vice president of UF’s SO College Club and organized weekly Unified intramural leagues, breaking down barriers and bringing together SOFL athletes and UF students. When his Unified team traveled to Germany for the Special Olympics World Games, Duch was the consummate partner, working to ensure his teammates would have an experience they would remember for the rest of their lives. Duch is a pre-med student at the University of Florida.  

Sports Organization of the Year  
This award recognizes sports organizations who have made major contributions to the mission of Special Olympics Florida and demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of Special Olympics athletes and all people with intellectual disabilities.  

The Florida High School Athletic Association is a champion of Special Olympics Florida. The organization has elevated our Unified Champion School teams, giving members the opportunity to be recognized as Varsity athletes. Through FHSAA, they compete at the highest levels, representing their schools in State Championships. This partnership is a powerful – and highly visible – reminder that Special Olympics Florida athletes are like any other athlete. All they really want is the opportunity to play and compete. For recognizing that, and for shining a spotlight on our athletes, the FHSAA is the Sports Organization of the Year. 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver Award  
This award is given to a person or company who has played a role in furthering the vision of our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Shriver was a pioneer in the worldwide struggle for rights and acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities.  

Our friends at Wawa and The Wawa Foundation are always looking for ways to support the athletes of Special Olympics Florida. And this year, we are incredibly proud – and grateful – to celebrate 11 amazing years as partners. During that time, Wawa and The Wawa Foundation have raised more than $1 million to support our athletes. From spearheading in-store promotions, to providing food and beverages at events, to serving as volunteers, Wawa’s team and its enthusiastic support have been instrumental in our expansion of services to 62,000 athletes. For its unwavering commitment to the athletes of Special Olympics Florida, Wawa and The Wawa Foundation are this year’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Award winner.

Media Organization of the Year
Presented to the media organization or agency whose year-round coverage and support has enhanced public awareness and highlighted the accomplishments of athletes, volunteers, or other aspects of the program.

WESH2, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, has been committed to supporting Special Olympics Florida through storytelling and coverage of competitions and fundraisers. But it’s gone even further. WESH anchors Jim Payne and Meredith McDonough have regularly served as masters of ceremonies for events such as Polar Plunge and our annual Champions Gala.

Jim also served as a longtime SOFL board before retiring in September. When he retired, McDonough took his place on the Special Olympics Florida Board. The station has gone out of its way to support our athletes, even offering studio time – and staff expertise – to produce training videos for our Athlete Leadership programs. We are proud to recognize WESH2 as our 2023 Media Organization of the Year.

“Our Leadership Award winners are true champions of our athletes and our mission,” said Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock. “They embody the best of our movement and are committed to helping us build a world of inclusion, where people with intellectual disabilities are accepted and respected. We are honored to recognize them for their incredible contributions.”

For more information, contact Special Olympics Florida Communications Director Jim Stratton at jimstratton@sofl.org.

About Special Olympics Florida: Special Olympics Florida provides year-round sports training and competition, crucial health services, and life-changing leadership programs to people with intellectual disabilities, at no cost to the athletes or their caregivers. The organization serves more than 60,000 athletes statewide and seeks to build communities where people with intellectual disabilities are treated with respect and given the opportunities they deserve. To learn more, visit www.specialolympics.org.

About The Wawa Foundation: The Wawa Foundation is an extension of Wawa’s commitment to making the world a better place by fulfilling customers’ lives every day. The Wawa Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation founded by Wawa, Inc. to support the company’s charitable giving and philanthropic activities – and ultimately to help build happier, stronger communities. The Wawa Foundation focuses its support on organizations committed to health, hunger and everyday heroes through local, regional and national grants and / or in-store fundraising, through donation boxes and point-of-purchase scan materials. Since 2014, Wawa and The Wawa Foundation have donated more than $150 million in grants to causes supporting health, hunger and everyday heroes.

Media Contact:
Chloe Blair
Uproar PR for Special Olympics Florida