Phoenix Joplin is the perfect face of the Cowlitz County Special Olympics. He personified the benefits so well, Joplin was chosen as the Columbia River Area Athlete of the year.
Joplin is a recent graduate of Mark Morris High School, just turned 18 and is diagnosed with autism. When he first came to the Special Olympics group he was withdrawn, lonely and experienced a great deal of social anxiety, said Special Olympics Coordinator, Becky Bernhardt.
“He never had a friend and it broke his mother’s heart. Then he started playing year-round sports and making friends. That also helped him in school too because he could connect with people about sports,” Bernhardt said.
He has been with the group for about five years now. His mother, Kellie Peterson, decided to give it a try after finding a flier for Special Olympics events in the mail.
“He has always been very athletic. But on other teams, he wasn’t really a part of the team. He wasn’t always included because he is different,” Peterson said.
Before joining Special Olympics, Joplin tried recreational sports, school sports and even church sports. But due to his anxiety, he would find himself on the outskirts of the team, often getting lost in the fast paced games, Bernhardt said.
“It was tough. He was all alone. He even went mute a few times, it was just a very lonely time,” Peterson said.
Being a person with autism, Joplin needed a low stress environment that fostered growth, personal development and offered positive social interactions. All he wanted to do was play sports, not worry about his disabilities, Bernhardt said.
“He is an amazing athlete. He doesn’t understand his own skill level. He’s able to tell us what he wants to do. And his parents just bawled watching him succeed,” Bernhardt said.
When Peterson first thought about going to the group she was hesitant Joplin still wouldn’t fit in.
“Not in a bad way but, the poster boards always seem like it’s for someone with more. I just thought his disability didn’t need that. But we showed up and he lighten up right away. There was a ton of happy people. They just got him,” Peterson said.
Joplin and his parents both found a safe place where they could be themselves and focus on growing Joplin’s socialization skills. The process has been awesome to witness, the outcome even more amazing, Bernhardt said.
“The family has become an inspiration for others who see that Special Olympics can give their children an opportunity to shine, gain confidence, learn new skills, make friends and feel the embrace of a supportive community,” Bernhardt wrote in a letter to The Daily News.
Joplin first started out playing softball. He then added on flag football, basketball, bowling and soccer. The latter was canceled this season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, along with his high school graduation and big birthday party plans.
According to Peterson, Joplin was so excited about becoming Athlete of the Year, he didn’t care about losing the other ceremonies and honors to the virus. He told everyone he knows about it, Peterson said.
Athletes in the running for the award must be positive, good leaders, respectful, timely, listen well, have great sportsmanship, help others, and be overall friendly, Bernhardt said. Then from a list of those qualifying, coaches make the final decision.
Joplin not only came out of his shell and stepped into his full potential, he actively lived these qualifications.
“He’s just a happy go-lucky guy,” Bernhardt said. “He always has the biggest smile on his face. He’s just made the most of his time here.”
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