The Iredell Elite volleyball team celebrates after winning the gold medal at the North Carolina Special Olympics Summer Games. (Photos courtesy of N.C. Special Olympics)

BY MIKE FUHRMAN

No one who saw the Iredell Elite volleyball team’s first practice would have predicted the team’s first season would end with a medal ceremony and a celebration dance.

But that’s exactly what happened as the start-up team traveled to Raleigh for the North Carolina Special Olympics Summer Games and ran the table, winning all five of its matches to claim the gold medal.

The Elite team went undefeated on Saturday, June 1, in the round-robin stage, defeating Cumberland, Cabarrus and Watauga to secure the No. 1 seed in the medal round.

On the following day, the Elite squared off against Cabarrus in the semifinals. After dropping the first set, the Iredell team rallied to win the match and a berth in the finals.

In the championship, Watauga put up a good fight, but the Elite prevailed in straight sets — 25-15 and 28-26 — to win the gold.

“It was really, really tight – back and forth like a drag race,” said Tyler Bowie, a 27-year-old multi-sport athlete who contributed to the gold medal effort and choreographed the team’s celebration dance.

Chase Stroud, one of the team’s top performers, secured the final point for the Elite – and then it was time to dance. And dance they did!

An improbable outcome

Ted Williams, who coaches the team along with Tammy Bowie, was anything but optimistic after the team started training in late February. A former standout intramural volleyball player at N.C. State, he had little reason to believe the Elite would be playing for a championship three months later.

“After the first practice, I wanted to quit. It was bad,” he said. “Nobody could consistently get a serve across the net.”

Chase, a 33-year-old Special Olympian and state-level ambassador for the program, said he’s glad the coaches did not give up on the team. Coach Ted, he said, knew how to get the most out of them.

“He would say, ‘Y’all are stinking up the court,’ ” Chase said, laughing at memories of the first few practices. “Sometimes you need motivation.”

The team is comprised of six athletes and four unified partners. Among the athletes, most had little or no experience playing volleyball. But they slowly improved over the course of the season.

“We just grew together,” Coach Tammy said. “It’s like I have ten children now.”

In the weeks leading up the Summer Games, the Elite had a strong showing in an invitational tournament. As a result, they got put in the toughest bracket in the Summer Games.

‘It so fun to see their joy’

The coaches are quick to credit the unified partners for the team’s success. They are like coaches on the court and are eager to support the athletes.

“I can promise they learned more from those three in a few days than they did from us in three months,” Coach Ted said.

Elleigh Williams, 19, has been volunteering with Special Olympics since she was a sixth-grader. She’s a talented volleyball player and relishes the time she’s spent working with the team as a unified partner.

“It’s so fun to see their joy and how much their hard work pays off,” the N.C. State sophomore said.

Barrett Williams, a standout three-sport athlete at North Iredell High, also enjoyed playing with the team as a unified partner.

While helping the players reach their potential was rewarding, she said she got as much out of the experience as she gave.

From the athletes, Barrett learned an important lesson: “No matter what happens you can have fun and be joyful.”

Kinley Pennell, another all-star athlete at North Iredell, also helped the team as a unified partner.

Revae Bostwick, the parent of one of the volleyball players, also participated as a unified partner, which gave her a unique perspective – as mom, teammate and cheerleader.

Although she will always remember Chase scoring the gold medal-clinching point, another memory also stands out for her. One of the athletes who had struggled to get the ball over the net in practice all season took her game to the next level during the Summer Games and hit the ball over four times.

“I almost teared up!” Revae said. “I credit this life-changing moment for this athlete to the other three unified partners on the team who never gave up on her or any of the other players on the team.

“Just seeing what these athletes were able to accomplish after only 10 practices is astounding.”

“If you can dream it …’

Bobbi Williams, local coordinator for Iredell County Special Olympics, said the support the local athletes receive is incredible. Partners Behavioral Health, with the help of its partner agencies, provided the team with new uniforms.

Other supporters provide funding for transportation, meals and hotel rooms. In fact, the athletes don’t pay anything to participate.

“We don’t want for anything. Our community loves on us, and they are very generous,” she said. “We are very thankful for that.”

Preston Fox, a 30-year-old athlete, expressed his appreciation for everyone involved with Team Elite.

“Our unified partners are wonderful just like the coaches and athletes,” he said. “We think of them as family. They are amazing and wonderful.”

Sissy Blackwell, a 29-year-old athlete and the volleyball team’s most improve player, agreed.

“They make it fun,” she said. “They are joy in our lives.”

Megan Graham, a 26-year-old athlete who also enjoys cheerleading, said being part of the volleyball team has been “really exciting.”

In the Elite’s first season, the team proved that when you surround six amazing human beings with love, support and top-notch coaching, almost anything is possible.

Or, as Sissy put it, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”

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