Mike Furnish Interview
The first Special Olympics games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968. Athletes from the United States, Canada and France participated in the games. In 1969, a group of volunteers organized the first Special Olympics Indiana games in Indianapolis. Mike Furnish, President and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana since 2007, started his involvement with Special Olympics in 1973 as a volunteer basketball coach. Mike will retire from Special Olympics Indiana in December, 2017. He was interviewed in 2013.
Globally, Special Olympics offers at least 40 different sports. “The whole premise is that no two people are alike in their interests or abilities,” explains Mike. Special Olympics does not have an off-season. In addition to the summer games held on the campus of Indiana State, there is an annual winter games with downhill skiing, ice skating and snowboarding. Special Olympics Indiana has a small staff that coordinate the events, but as Mike explains, “One thing that characterizes our organization today is that we really are an organization of volunteers.”
As there have been paradigm shifts in services, Special Olympics has changed over time. In 1988, Indiana was one of the first states to pilot test the Unified Sports program. The program brings together people with and without disabilities to train and compete against other unified sports teams. Mike says, “It was timely in the sense that that had paralleled what was taking place in schools as kids were moving away from special education settings into broader, more general settings.”
Mike describes how Special Olympics Indiana has been a forerunner in the Special Olympics movement. Indiana introduced ballroom dancing and flag football as Special Olympic sports. In the late 1990s, the Athlete Leadership program was developed. A few of the program’s topics include public speaking skills, participation on committees, coaching techniques, and rules for officiating.
Looking toward the future, Mike discusses the need for Special Olympics Indiana to promote healthier lifestyles. Mike says, “We find when we have done health screenings at our events, that 7 out of 10 of our athletes have an acute medical problem on the day they're there.” Special Olympics Indiana is reaching out to the medical community; providing healthy living training to athletes and volunteers; and targeting children age 2 to 7 with a program called Young Athletes. Mike explains, “It’s great stuff for sports, but it's great stuff for life when a person at that age begins to learn how to maintain their balance and do some of the basic things that sometimes just are ignored because people think they can't.”
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