When Karri Sparkman couldn’t find a special needs wrestling program for her sons, she approached the Macomb Township Parks and Recreation Department to start one. A year later, the program is registering for its fourth session and Sparkman has a new ambition–take the sport to the Special Olympics.
While Special Olympics offers more than 32 Olympic-style individual and team sports, wrestling is not one of them.
“I think there is a niche for it, but think people are either afraid their children are going to get hurt or they’re afraid of the sport,” Sparkman said. “When I go to a wrestling event, I see so many kids with special needs that love the program–first and foremost my son Jesse. His dream is to get this into Special Olympics, so how can I not support him?”
Both Sparkman boys, Jesse, 18, and Jacob, 14, have cerebral palsy, but excel at wrestling as it is easily adaptable and only really requires upper body strength.
“It makes them feel good about themselves,” said the Macomb Township mother. “It’s a passion and they feel good when they’re doing it. It boosts their self-confidence just like any regular sport would.”
Although the parks and recreation program started with just Jesse and Jacob, it now boasts six members who are always looking to welcome new athletes to the team.
“We have one (team member) with Down syndrome and he is on fire,” Sparkman said. “They are really, really excited (for the program’s second year). My main goal is just to get it out there. We want to get people interested and then we really want to take it to the Special Olympics.”
Under the direction of Coach Glen Smith, the fourth session of the program starts June 12 and runs through July 31, with practices every Tuesday from 6-8 p.m.
“(Glen Smith) is heaven sent,” Sparkman said. “He does a lot of one-on-one with each of them and then pairs them into groups to work together and learn what they were just taught. It’s all very well managed. Because it’s a physical sport, you would think that it is dangerous, but it isn’t really. It’s just learning technique to get someone down, roll them over and make a pin.”
The seven-week program is open to special needs athletes ages 8 to 18, with the only requirement being upper body strength.
“Not every kid is going to be able to do this that has special needs, but a lot of them are,” Sparkman said. “You definitely need to have upper body strength and be able to get around on the ground, but crawling or scooting into the ring is fine.”
While the program’s course description sets the goal of the program as “preparing the special needs athlete to have the ability to compete on a Special Olympics team,” Sparkman said she has found the program’s benefits to stretch far beyond the physical.
“I think it provides so much for them, not only in peer relationships, but teaching them how to feel better about themselves and knowing that even if you do lose, you’re still OK. Everybody is different and they do things to modify it so everybody can learn how to do it.”
While it may take Sparkman another year to make this dream come true, parks and recreation program leader Michelle Duda says if anyone can get the sport into the Special Olympics, Karri Sparkman is the wresting mom to do it.
“When a parent calls about a special needs program for their child, we do the best we can to look into it and try and make it happen, but we really need the parent to help advocate for the cause within their networks and that is why wrestling has been a successful program,” Duda said. “Karri has gone out of her way to promote this program and I believe she will remain relentless in her pursuit to get this sport into Special Olympics.”
For Sparkman, it’s just a matter of spreading the word.
“That’s the first hurdle, just getting people aware of what we’re trying to start. The rest will come.”
The upcoming wrestling session is $55 for Macomb Township residents and $60 for non-residents. Register by calling the township recreation center at 586-992-2900. Sparkman also encourages interested parents to call her with questions at 586-718-5994.