By Fernanda Bartels, Staff Writer

Some people may have seen the George Mason University Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) Special Olympics program teams playing during halftime of basketball and soccer games. But only a few people know about the program and its success over the years.

The Mason Special Olympics program started six years ago within the LIFE Program.

Mason LIFE is a four-year program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The LIFE Program has been in existence since 2001.

The curriculum of the program covers a wide range of courses, from communication skills such as reading and writing to interacting and socializing with others.

Mason LIFE’s four-year curriculum includes fitness and sports-related courses.

Although the Mason LIFE curriculum introduces its students to the world of sports, the Special Olympics program has a different approach.
The students enter the world of competitive sports, where team work and companionship lead to success on the court.

“Special Olympics is their only avenue into sports, and [for] teaching them self reliance and camaraderie,” said Head Coach Leo Alonso, one of the three coaches of the Special Olympics program.

By strengthening friendships and building character, the Special Olympics program has grown over the years.

“It started as a three-person pilot program,” said Alonso. “The three kids came from a program at the Paul VI Catholic High School, called Options.”
Now, the program has 25 athletes, divided into three teams: Gold Rush, The Patriots and Mason Nation.

The participants practice every Wednesday at the RAC. The athletes participate in basketball, soccer and track and field competitions throughout the year.

The teams play in five soccer tournaments, five basketball tournaments and only one track and field competition a year.

Special Olympics tournaments are divided in areas and divisions; Mason teams compete in the area 26, Northern Virginia.

By winning the area 26 division games, the team has the chance to compete in the state games.

“Two teams went to state [games] for soccer to Virginia Beach back in November, and they both came home with the gold,” said Alonso. “We usually do pretty good.”

Mason LIFE Special Olympics teams just finished their basketball season a few weeks ago and brought home medals.

The Patriots won the gold medal in their division, and the other two teams each won silver medals.

“State games [for Special Olympics] are no different from the basketball team being [in] the NCAA Tournament,” said Alonso.

Medals and competitions aside, playing a competitive sport brings several benefits for the Special Olympics program athletes.

“I see [changes in the individuals’ behavior] all the time,” said Alonso. “I see the self esteem, how they carry on with themselves. It is incredible how much better [their self esteem] is. Their camaraderie with each other is also very good, which I think helps them getting around on their own, and it will help them in the future.”

The teams are currently practicing for their track and field tournament, which goes until the first week of May.

For more information, visit the Special Olympics Virginia website at