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Sports Central: Known For Many Sports, this OKC Suburb Also Embraces the Paralympic Movement

29 Apr, 2015

By: Michael Popke

Soccer and golf may be some of the sports “that brought us to the dance,” in the words of Cathy Williams-White, director of the Edmond, Oklahoma, Convention & Visitors Bureau. But this Oklahoma City suburb of 88,000 residents also is setting a new standard for athletes with physical disabilities.

In addition to hosting regional tournaments sponsored by the American Youth Soccer Organization, national-level golf events, and state high school and pro-am swim meets, Edmond is home to the University of Central Oklahoma Endeavor Games — a four-day competition recognized by the United States Olympic Committee and US Paralympics that allows all athletes with physical challenges to participate in multiple sports.

“There is nothing else like this in the United States,” Williams-White says. “We set the bar for how to embrace that segment of athletics.”

The Endeavor Games

Edmond’s bold foray into providing sports opportunities for more than 500 disabled athletes around the country stemmed from a very personal situation, when one member of the group working to develop and promote the Sooner State Games and Special Olympics Oklahoma was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “They realized then that they didn’t have anything for athletes with physical disabilities,” Williams-White says.

Hosted by UCO, the Endeavor Games is now in its 16th year. The 2015 Games will be held June 11-14 and will feature at sports including archery, cycling, para-canoeing, powerlifting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, shooting and wheelchair basketball. Oklahoma City-based manufacturers of prosthetic devices will set up shop onsite to work with athletes and take care of any necessary repairs or replacements.

But these annual Games include much more than competition. Skills clinics, mentor programs and Wounded Warrior Project activities all play a role in the festivities. In fact, up to a fifth of all participating athletes are military veterans, according to Williams-White.

“We also train coaches to coach people with disabilities,” she says. “They’re teaching others how to use their body differently than they would an able-bodied athlete.”

Hotel operators and employees such as desk clerks and concierges also undergo training in how to work with physically challenged guests and in providing proper accommodations and necessary accessibility equipment. Similarly, restaurant staff are informed that they may need to rearrange floor plans that week to accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Not surprisingly, UCO has served as a Paralympic training site for more than 10 years for the U.S. men’s and women’s sitting volleyball teams. And in 2010, Edmond hosted the World Organization Volleyball for Disabled World Sitting Volleyball Championships, with athletes and officials from more than 30 countries attending.

Earlier this year, UCO welcomed the Central Oklahoma Para-Swimming Open — the first in a series of 14 “emerging-athlete” events to be sponsored by US Paralympics throughout 2015 in the United States, Canada and Scotland. “We have a track record now that shows we take care of participants and their families,” Williams-White says.

Soccer, Golf & Swimming, Too

Edmond has long been a stronghold for youth soccer. The Edmond Soccer Complex, built by the city and operated by the nonprofit Edmond Soccer Club (the sport’s largest youth group in the state), boasts 16 full-size fields, 10 lighted fields, three concessions stands, parking for more than 340 vehicles – and a history of successfully hosting collegiate, statewide and regional tournaments.

The largest of those events, the AYSO Southern Region III tourney, draws players who come from 11 states and who stay for seven days. The last time Edmond hosted the rotating event was 2013 and Williams-White hopes to land the tournament again soon.

Additionally, the Edmond Soccer Club sponsors the Beat the Heat Tournament every August, followed by the Turkey Shootout Tournament each November. Last year’s shootout attracted more than 200 teams, and officials expect another large turnout for the November 2015 event.

Golf is another activity putting Edmond on the sports map. Oak Tree National, a private 18-hole course designed by the renowned Pete Dye, hosted the 2014 United State Golf Association’s U.S. Senior Open last July for the first time. The 144-player field attracted 25,000 fans per day for seven days. Tournament packages also are available at the Oak Tree County Club, another private Pete-Dye designed course with 36 holes.

The new Edmond YMCA Recreation & Aquatic Center in Mitch Park opened last year and now allows the city to host high-end swimming events in an Olympic-size pool. Built to serve the needs of Edmond’s three high schools, and with spectator seating for 800, the natatorium (which also is open to local residents) is quickly becoming one of the top competitive venues in the state.

The facility was put to the test early on, when it hosted the 2014 Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association’s state swim meet last February, mere weeks after opening. More recently, the local American Energy Swim Club held the 23rd Annual Oklahoma Elite Pro-Am meet at the center in December 2014.

Coming Attractions

The Edmond YMCA is not the city’s newest athletic venue. Expected to open later this year, the 155,000-square-foot Summit Sports Complex will be Oklahoma’s largest multiple sports facility and feature eight basketball courts, two indoor soccer fields and 16 volleyball courts.

While the venue will serve youth and high school sports programs, it also will help Edmond attract new tournament opportunities. “To host large events in these sports in the past, we’ve had them spread out at high schools across the metro area,” Williams-White says. “There were some organizations we couldn’t even approach, because we did not have the facilities to give them what they needed. Now we will.”

Another new complex will be the 120-acre Edmond 66 Softball Complex — located right off iconic Route 66. Designed to complement the existing four-diamond Bickham Softball Complex and expected to open this spring, this four-field facility will feature concessions and restroom areas designed with a historic Route 66 motif. Future plans call for an additional four fields. (It’s worth noting here that the Amateur Softball Association’s national headquarters is located in Oklahoma City.)

Something for Everyone

At the other end of Edmond’s sports facility spectrum is a venue that has stood the test of time and serves the needs of Oklahoma’s burgeoning cowboy population. The Lazy E Arena in nearby Guthrie opened in 1988 and hosts equestrian, rodeo and other events up to 20 weekends a year.

In addition to the arena, which seats more than 7,200, the 900-acre site includes a breeding facility and an American Quarter Horse training racetrack. Arena officials pursue rodeos and other events in the same way UCO and Edmond Soccer Club market themselves for competitions. “It’s stronger now than it was,” Williams-White says, adding that the Lazy E Arena’s current owners have reinvested in nearly every element of the facility.

With more athletic events targeting Edmond as a destination city, it’s no wonder that new hotels are expected to open soon. Today, there are 710 hotel rooms available at any given time, a number that will climb significantly when two more hotels open later this year. Additionally, a hotel and conference center is scheduled to open in 2017. Oklahoma City, adjacent to Edmond from the south, offers 14,000 additional hotel rooms.

When athletes and their families aren’t at the competition venues, they can dine at one of 200 restaurants in Edmond — a number Williams-White notes is disproportionate to the city’s land mass and population. A quaint and historic downtown area features eclectic shopping options, and the 40-acre Frontier City theme park offers rides and shows. 

The Arcadia Lake recreation area, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Remington Park Racing & Casino and Science Museum Oklahoma offer a variety of other opportunities, and Pops — a 66-foot-tall neon and steel soda bottle sculpture that is among Route 66’s newest attractions — sells 500 flavors of soda pop.

Some of Edmond’s other area attractions are sports-related, including the National Softball Hall of Fame, Silverleaf Shotgun Sports and Arctic Edge Ice Arena. “This is a family sports community, regardless of the sport,” Williams-White says. “We place a large emphasis on sports, and people here want to keep it growing.” 

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