As a Special Olympics Ohio coach and former athlete, Brandon Hahn knows there’s much more to preparing for events than training.

Athletes face pressures that can trigger frustration and other mental health struggles.

So, Brandon is grateful for the Special Olympics Ohio Healthy Athletes program, which provides health screenings and resources in several areas, including mental well-being.

“Oh, my goodness, it is a lifesaver,” says Brandon, 31, of Carrollton, who coaches track and basketball. “In order for athletes to compete, they need to be at their best physical and mental health.”

Group shot of the Special Olympics team
Special Olympics Ohio coach and former athlete, Brandon Hahn (center, black shirt), and his team from Carroll County.

The 2024 Summer Games presented in June at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center offered screenings to the nearly 3,500 participating athletes, ages 8 to 81, from across the state. Available were:

  • Special Smiles: Dental screenings, oral health information and supplies
  • Healthy Hearing: Hearing screenings
  • Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes: Eye screenings, prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses and sports goggles
  • Fit Feet: Foot screenings and proper shoe and sock gear
  • Strong Minds: Learning activities and resources to develop emotional health and coping skills
  • FUNFitness: Activities and education to improve athletic function and reduce injury
  • Health Promotion: Prevention and nutrition education
An athlete in a wheelchair at the Healthy Hearing screening station
Special Olympics athlete Maxwell Damron receives a hearing screening as part of the Healthy Athletes program.

Pitching in to provide needed health care screenings

In 2024, more than 2,000 screenings were completed in a single day.

It’s a massive undertaking. Each summer, several programs from across The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University’s health science colleges pitch in to help make the screenings happen. Among them are more than 165 faculty, staff and students in dentistry, audiology, ophthalmology, podiatry, athletic training, physical therapy, psychology, nursing and more.

“We’re able to provide significant health screenings to an athletic population that may or may not have access at other times in a fun environment,” says Larry Nolan, DO, a sports and family medicine physician at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center who serves as medical director for Special Olympics Ohio, succeeding former director, sports medicine physician Michael Jonesco, DO.

“Anytime we can get an athlete to engage more in their own health and keep them competing and doing the things that they like doing, it’s always a win,” Nolan says.
Larry Nolan and Michael Jonesco with Special Olympics athletes on the background
Larry Nolan, DO, (right), is the current medical director of Special Olympics Ohio. He’s pictured with former director and Ohio State sports medicine physician Michael Jonesco, DO.

Healthy Athletes is a global program of Special Olympics, started due to large health disparities among people with intellectual disabilities, says Amy O’Neal, senior director of health strategies for Special Olympics Ohio.

The games offer a convenient one-stop access point for athletes who may struggle to find care in urban or rural areas or who may live away from family in residential homes.

O’Neal says that, according to most current data, screenings have shown that among participants:

  • 8% have permanent hearing loss
  • 17% have an eye disease
  • 25% have untreated tooth decay
  • 46% have a skin or nail condition
  • 46% over age 20 are obese

Raising standards of care

“These screenings not only provide a service for our athletes, but they also provide a service for health care students and professionals, because they increase their knowledge of best practices and caring for individuals with intellectual disabilities,” O’Neal says.

Amy O’Neal
Amy O’Neal is the senior director of health strategies for Special Olympics Ohio.

Maggie Wolodkevich, senior clinical athletic trainer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, says the screenings take the financial burden out of health screenings for athletes and give them an opportunity to communicate with providers who understand the challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities.

She recalls a health screening identifying significant hearing loss in one athlete. While those around him had assumed he just wasn’t listening, Wolodkevich says he became a completely different person when he was able to get hearing aids.

“It’s eye opening to realize how many people don’t have the access to things that we take for granted,” says Wolodkevich.

She works on the medical team during Special Olympics Ohio events. “Special Olympic athletes are just like any other athletes. There’s no reason to treat them any different than our Ohio State athletes themselves.”

Special Olympics participants walking to the stadium
Special Olympics athlete cheering
Brutus Buckeye hugging a Special Olympics participant

    Inspired by athletes to do more

    Dr. Nolan says he’s proud of the Ohio State team, but he’s also quick to point out that “it’s not just Ohio State.” Some other partners include Cleveland State University, University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

    “This is a group of people who want to help these athletes, people who want to be a part of it. You get to be around a group of motivated athletes who are going to inspire you to want to do more,” says Dr. Nolan, a clinical associate professor of Family and Community Medicine in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

    Beth Chartier, RDH, MPH, a clinical director for the Special Olympics Ohio Special Smiles program in central Ohio, says the program screens for oral health issues, including oral cancer, instructs on proper brushing and flossing and provides fluoride varnish treatments. Volunteers also try to connect athletes with appropriate providers as close to their homes as possible.

    She calls it a phenomenal experience for students, many of whom have never interacted with people with intellectual disabilities.

    “Our students just love the experience and having that opportunity to raise their comfort level and have a better understanding of the unique oral health needs and difficulties that the population faces,” says Chartier, a clinical assistant professor in The Ohio State University College of Dentistry.

    “It also helps raise the awareness of the immense difficulty that this population has in in accessing care,” she says. “There are very few dental providers who are comfortable or equipped in treating this population.”

    ‘It wouldn’t be Special Olympics without it’

    Athlete Maxwell Damron, 26, of Columbus, competes in bocce and basketball and attends the health screenings. He says volunteers don’t only fill the role of doctor or nurse, but also help athletes make health decisions.

    Max Damron being examined by the dentist
    Maxwell Damron receives a dental screening at Special Olympics Ohio.

    “It’s good to have the doctors and nurses there to educate the athletes on health, and keeping up to date with their appointments and not to avoid them if something is wrong with their health,” Maxwell says.

    Both Maxwell and Brandon are also trained to serve as “Health Messengers,” health and wellness leaders, advocates and role models in their Special Olympics communities.

    Brandon says Healthy Athletes is a critical component of the games that makes a difference and athletes gravitate toward it.

    “I’ve seen change. They just love it,” he says. “It wouldn’t be Special Olympics without it.”

    Andrea Headley, manager of athlete leadership for Special Olympics Ohio, says she often hears about the life-changing impact of Healthy Athletes and experiences the gratitude of athletes.

    “It’s a very powerful program. The health component of Special Olympics is really downplayed, but it is globally the largest provider of free health screenings to individuals in the entire world,” says Headley.

    It wouldn’t happen, she adds, if not for the volunteers.

    “I can’t overstate just how important and vital they are,” she says.

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