The Blast is one of many Minnesota delegations that exemplifies what it means to be a part of the Special Olympics family.
“My wife Ruth and I first got involved with Special Olympics about 10 years ago,” says Head of Delegation, Brian Petrich. “Our son, Lucas, has autism and we wanted to get him involved with the community. So, we signed him up, and the rest is history.”
When the Petrich family first joined the Blast in 2013, there were five athletes participating in basketball and 10 in softball. Today, over 150 athletes, coaches and Unified partners are registered with the delegation in nine different sports throughout the year. “We have an amazing group of coaches who have helped us create an atmosphere of acceptance, respect and teamwork,” says Brian.
The growth of the Blast delegation comes as no surprise. They’re a tight-knit group, and “family” is at the core of everything they do.
“I would say my favorite quality of our team is family,” says Brian. “We support one another. Many of the athletes grew up together, as did some of our coaches. I think the family part of our team is really important. It warms my heart to be able to be a part of it.”
The concept of family is so important to the Blast that it’s baked into just about everything they do. Some athletes refer to teammates as brothers and sisters, and coaches as mom and dad. Practices and competitions feel like home to athletes and Unified partners alike. They often come together for a mid-game huddle, chanting the word “family” in unison.
“Being a Unified partner on the Blast has changed my life,” says Unified partner, Afton Jutila. “I have gained a whole other family through Special Olympics and friendships that are going to last forever. The opportunity to be on the same field as Special Olympics athletes and learn from them has made me a better athlete and a better person.”
Afton had experience with the larger disability community in her career as an occupational therapist, but she had no previous ties to Special Olympics before she became a Unified partner with the Blast in 2016.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I just showed up, but I was hooked the second I joined,” says Afton. “Just seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces, being able to coach and play alongside athletes. I’ve grown as an individual and my team has turned into family. They’re my family I go to when I’m not at home.”
The Blast has had some incredible experiences over the last decade, including attending the 2022 USA Games in Orlando, Florida where they represented Minnesota in Unified softball. They left it all out on the field and ended with a fourth-place finish, competing against Special Olympics teams from Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana and more.
Most recently, the Blast wrapped up their 2023 basketball season on Saturday, July 22, at a border battle tournament in Baldwin, Wisconsin. They went head-to-head against counterparts from Special Olympics Wisconsin and won all three games!
While sports and unique experiences like these are important, Special Olympics is about more than just competition for the Blast. It’s about the community.
Every year the team dresses in coordinating costumes and jumps in a frozen lake at the South Metro Polar Plunge. They regularly have team get-togethers outside of practices and competitions. Athletes and Unified partners aren’t afraid to call each other when they need help or just want to chat.
“My goals for the team are about more than just sports, it’s about life lessons,” says Brian. “They’re interacting with their friends. They’re interacting with strangers in new settings. I’ve seen athletes grow so much in athletic and social skills.”
“Our team spends a lot of time together outside of practices and competitions. We have really great support from parents and group homes, and we love to go out in the community and have fun together.”
Looking ahead to the next 50 years of Special Olympics Minnesota, key leaders on the Blast hope to see more people step up as coaches and Unified partners.
“In order for Special Olympics to continue to grow and offer programs for athletes, we need more coaches and Unified partners,” says Brian. “It can be hard to get people to want to come out, but what I’ve always said is, ‘Give me one practice, and you’re going to fall in love with this community. You’re going to fall in love with this program.’”
The Blast is one example of dozens of Special Olympics Minnesota teams who are champions of inclusion. They are creating an inclusive world for athletes, Unified partners, coaches and families to thrive. We are so thankful for their dedication!
Interested in getting connected with a Special Olympics Minnesota team? Reach out to [email protected] and join the Special Olympics family!