Coaching Special Olympics reinforces gymnast’s love for sport

Sophomore Whitney King coached in high school and volunteered at a Special Olympics event as a freshman.

Sophomore all-around Whitney King performs on the balance beam during the quad meet on Jan. 28 at McGonigle Hall. | MIKE NGUYEN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

One of Whitney King’s former club teammates, Kayla Wardell, first got King involved with the Special Olympics after a sleepover.

Wardell encouraged King to participate in the program every Sunday. Special Olympics provides sports training and competition opportunities to people with intellectual disabilities. The sophomore all-around from Burke, Virginia, served as the coach of her hometown Special Olympics’ gymnastics teams during her junior and senior years at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

As coach of the Special Olympics teams, King was in charge of creating assignments, designating events and helping the athletes go from apparatus to apparatus.

King said she was “overwhelmed” when she first started with the Special Olympics.

“I wasn’t necessarily sure of how involved I should be or what I should be doing, even how to talk to the athletes,” King said. “When I first started going, it was definitely more of a backseat role. I would just sit and watch and throw little comments in there. As I started going more, I started taking more of a leadership role.”

The scheduling of events was especially important because the athletes were particular about the order and timing, King said.

“You have to learn how to understand everyone’s cues, things you can or can’t say,” King said. “At the same time, [you’re] not trying to baby them, because they are athletes and they did want to learn.”

King and the rest of the Temple gymnastics team volunteered at the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival at Villanova in November 2016.

“To see them learning new skills and winning medals and things like that and how happy and excited they would get, it brought me back to why I’ve done gymnastics for so long,” King said.

“When it comes to balancing, she definitely shows a lot of maturity and confidence.”

King started gymnastics when she was 3 years old and has stuck with it ever since.

“Sports like dance and swim came and went, but I just stayed with gymnastics forever,” King said. “If you’re a gymnast, you really can’t do much else.”

King has found success this season. She was the Owls’ top beam performer with a 9.75 to tie for second overall with University of Pittsburgh senior all-around Catie Conrad, North Carolina State University sophomore Drew Grantham and Towson University senior all-around Tyra McKellar at Pittsburgh’s quad meet on Feb. 3.

She also posted a 9.675 in the balance beam — tying for third with senior all-around Sahara Gipson — at a dual meet at the University of North Carolina on Jan. 19.

While the beam event has been King’s main event, she also hopes to add twisting vaults to her repertoire again by next season.

“When it comes to balancing, she definitely shows a lot of maturity and confidence,” coach Umme Salim-Beasley said. “It puts the rest of the beam lineup at ease.”

King had to deal with injuries before her successes. She has suffered “numerous” ankle sprains since she arrived at Temple, King said. She also went down with a back injury that “flared up” over the summer and held her out of all gymnastic activities for nearly three weeks.

“It’s very frustrating,” King said. “You don’t realize how much you need to be in the gym until you’re not in the gym. It’s hard to watch everyone else do things when you can’t.”

Despite the fact that King spent a large chunk of her high school career coaching the Special Olympics team, she said she’s not planning on becoming a coach upon graduation.

“I want to go to law school after I graduate and hopefully do something with that,” King said.

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