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Special Olympics Oklahoma marks 50 years with 5,500 participants

STILLWATER — Steve and Traci Worthen cheered loudly on the sidelines as their 13-year-old son, Matthew, prepared to compete in the Special Olympics Oklahoma 50-meter dash.

Though Matthew briefly made eye contact with them and also his 5-year-old sister, Melissa, his primary focus was getting to the other side of the orange flag at the Stillwater High School track field.

But his eventual last-place finish in his race didn’t dampen his or his parents’ enthusiasm.

“This is the only kind of competition he’s ever done, and I used to do this when I was his age,” Traci Worthen said. “I did the softball throw and basketball for the Special Olympics through my high school years. My family would drive me from Tulsa to Springfield, Missouri, and I would stay in the barracks.”

Traci’s past participation in the Special Olympics helped her give her son, who is on the autism spectrum and first began talking at age 4, a good perspective on the importance of completing a task regardless of achieving first-place.

Now, the family drives from Bixby to Stillwater each summer to continue the tradition.

“The Special Olympics give everyone a chance to experience something new, something different,” Steve Worthen said. “A lot of these Olympians come from small towns all over Oklahoma and they don’t know there are other people like them that can compete. There are over 5,500 Olympians here and that’s just amazing.”

Special Olympics Oklahoma is celebrating its 50th year in operation this week, with Stillwater hosting the Summer Games for the 36th year. Opening ceremonies began at Oklahoma State University on Wednesday, and events will conclude Friday.

Boone Pickens Stadium on Thursday was the home for hundreds of bocce ball players, while Stillwater High School was the site for track and field athletes. Event organizers reported registering nearly 2,000 competitors in track and field sports alone, along with nearly 200 Unified basketball teams and around 30 Unified softball teams.

Summer, Bianca and Marc Brown of Owasso accompanied 8-year-old Miles, who is also on the autism spectrum, to Stillwater to take part in softball and the 50-meter dash.

Miles’ family applauded his teacher at Stone Canyon Elementary School, Kim Russell, and paraprofessional Carol Jensen for their work in getting Miles — who has been nonverbal — comfortable with the idea of competition.

“In the softball toss, he got silver,” Bianca Brown said. “This was our first year to do the 50-meter dash and he got a little shell-shocked. He looked at us more than the track. But it was good because it was something new for him to try.”

Jensen said convincing Miles, who she has worked with for more than three years, to try a new event would have been significantly more of a challenge when they first met. Miles also had plans to try out bowling and swimming at the Special Olympics this week, she said.

“I think it helps them bond with their friends,” Jensen said of the Summer Games. “It helps them get involved because they don’t always have those opportunities. Out here, they can run. They can throw a softball. They can play bocce. They can do what other kids get to do and feel good.”

The Gunter family, who are also from Owasso, entered 9-year-old Joshua in the 50-meter dash, swimming, bowling and softball competitions as well. Joshua’s mother, Amie, said this year was Joshua’s second competing but that he also participated in the young athletes program in previous years.

“We have a 19-year-old we went through all of this with,” Amie Gunter said. “They (both my children) look forward to it every year. They both are autistic and they can’t express themselves very well, but they do express that they love coming here every year.”

She said her sons are “very, very smart” and observant people who simply see the world differently than their neurotypical peers. The Worthens agreed, saying their son, Matthew, is a straight-A student in his classes and shows a strong interest in technology.

“They’ve taught me a lot. I’ve learned how to be patient and not sweat the small stuff,” Amie Gunter said of her sons.

Each of the families applauded the Special Olympics organizers for teaching their children some measure of independence and independent living skills, as the athletes typically stay in dorms at the OSU campus away from their parents.

“This is really good for parents, too, to see that the parents are not alone,” Marc Brown said. “There are all kinds of athletes out there and it’s a good time to come together to experience that. It definitely helps bring them out of their shell.”

OU Regents meet into night to determine path forward after Gallogly's retirement

OKLAHOMA CITY — The University of Oklahoma Board of Regents was meeting behind closed doors late Thursday to determine a path forward after President Jim Gallogly announced his retirement last Sunday.

The meeting started at 8:15 p.m., and an executive session was ongoing at press time.

Gallogly, who started the job July 1, said he told the regents of his plans to retire once they have a transition plan in place.

University of Oklahoma Board of Regents Chairwoman Leslie Rainbolt-Forbes said the goal was to ensure thoughtful consideration for what is best for the university during the transition to a new leader.

She said it has not been an easy year.

In February, it was learned that the university was investigating Gallogly’s predecessor, David Boren, on allegations of sexual misconduct.

Boren, a former governor and U.S. senator, was a popular president at OU and denies wrongdoing.

The university experienced cost-cutting measures under Gallogly in an effort to put it in a better financial situation.

Gallogly, who had no background in higher education leadership, held executive positions with Phillips, Chevron Phillips Chemical and ConcoPhillips before being named chief executive officer of LyondellBasell Industries. He led that company out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, transforming it into one of the largest plastics, chemical and refining companies.

Does Citizens United apply to Cherokee elections? Candidates for chief weigh in on this and other issues at televised forum

CLAREMORE — The three candidates for chief of the Cherokee Nation took to the airwaves Thursday night to make their cases to voters.

Hosted by RSU-TV, Thursday night’s candidate forum featured eight questions to David Walkingstick, Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Dick Lay on a range of topics, but the use of liability companies in campaigning popped up early and often.

The first question specifically asked the three about election reform and their thoughts on applying the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to the tribe’s campaign finance laws. The ruling allows for unlimited independent electioneering expenditures, but the tribe’s election code is silent on the matter.

Both Hoskin and Walkingstick have ethics complaints pending against their campaigns over the use of LLCs.

The Cherokee Nation Election Commission will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. Friday to consider disqualifying Walkingstick from the principal chief’s race over allegations that his campaign coordinated with and accepted illegal contributions from a corporation established by a former campaign staffer.

An attorney for the corporation in question, Cherokees for Change LLC, has maintained that the contributions are in line with Citizens United, prompting raised eyebrows from two of the candidates Thursday evening.

“Citizens United was bad for the American democracy, and it would be bad for the Cherokee democracy,” Hoskin said. “Applying Citizens United would take us down the road of dark money.”

“With election reform, we need to be careful,” Lay said. “We just haven’t figured it out yet. I’m seeing some things in this election that I don’t really agree with, including the use of LLCs and other issues like that.”

The three also disagreed on the direction they want Cherokee Nation Businesses, the tribe’s economic arm, to take in the future. About 40 percent of CNB’s revenue comes from nongaming entities, including government contracts across the country and in a handful of foreign countries, prompting Walkingstick to call for those positions to be relocated to northeastern Oklahoma.

“The jobs aren’t in the heart of the Cherokee Nation,” Walkingstick said. “We need these contracts here to put our people to work.”

One of the few subjects all three men agreed on was the need for more doctors, nurses and behavioral health staff within the tribe’s 14-county jurisdictional area, both in general and specifically to address the opioid epidemic.

“We focus on hiring more doctors and nurses,” Hoskin said. “We can do that. We need to give the recruiters the tools they need to bring in the doctors and pay them what the market demands. Same with the nurses.”

“The opioid epidemic, … it is a personal issue for me,” Walkingstick said. “It is important that we put behavioral health counselors and more resources across the 14 counties. We can’t wait on the state of Oklahoma to address the problem for us.”

The three also indicated that they are closely watching the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling in Murphy v. Carpenter, which potentially would formally reinstate the reservation status of the bordering Muscogee (Creek) Nation. All three indicated that they would be open to possibly pursuing a similar claim if the court sides with the Creek Nation.

“Whoever is elected chief when that decision is handed down, they’re going to have to be nimble … and know how to work through the system,” Lay said. “It could be an opportunity or a bucket full of problems. We just don’t know yet.”

Early walk-in voting starts on May 25 at the tribe’s Election Commission office in Tahlequah. The general election is scheduled for June 1, with a possible run-off slated for July 27. Absentee ballots for the June 1 election have already gone out.