Baton Rouge native Will Johannessen will compete in freestyle and butterfly swimming events at the Special Olypics in Seattle this month. Photos by Collin Richie.

Making waves: Local athletes represent Louisiana this month at the Special Olympics in Seattle

When Will Johannessen received a letter late last year notifying him he would represent Louisiana at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, the teenage swimmer could scarcely believe the news.

“I felt hyped,” says Will, who has Down syndrome and lives in Baton Rouge with his parents Bill and Alison and younger brother Nicholas.

“He couldn’t sit down, he was so excited,” says Alison.

The Special Olympics USA Games will take place in Seattle July 1-6 and will feature more than 4,000 athletes and coaches from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia in 14 team and individual sports. Will is scheduled to compete in the freestyle and butterfly swimming events.

“I like to swim like Michael Phelps,” says Will, speaking of the retired competitive swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time. “He’s really fast.”

“He wants to get all the gold medals,” agrees Alison.

Camp Shriver, held in Baton Rouge in June, allows people with intellectual disabilities learn new sports skills and improve individual sports performance. It’s hosted by Special Olympics Louisiana.

Seventy athletes from Louisiana will attend the games, including three more athletes from Baton Rouge: Patti Morgan, who will compete in bowling; Amberlynn Harrison, who will compete in track and field; and Dan Johnson, who will compete in bocce.

But these athletes aren’t the only Baton Rouge connection to the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The Capital City has a long history of welcoming Special Olympics events. “The Capital Area is extremely involved in our organization,” says Casey Minton, Special Olympics Louisiana director of communications and marketing.

This summer marks the 35th anniversary of the International Special Olympics Summer Games that took place in Baton Rouge in 1983. That competition featured more than 4,000 Special Olympics athletes from all over the world competing in events including basketball, bowling, floor hockey, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming, diving, track and field, volleyball and wheelchair events.

At the time, Baton Rouge beat out cities in Florida and Indiana to host the games because the facilities at LSU, specifically Tiger Stadium, were “exceptional,” says Minton. State leaders were “extremely supportive of the event.”

Baton Rouge is also the annual site of the Special Olympics State Indoor Games, the state’s largest competition for Special Olympics. Held in March each year, the event offers competition in bowling, tennis and basketball.

In addition, Baton Rouge is one of four Louisiana locales selected to serve as a host city for Camp Shriver, a weeklong summer camp allowing those with intellectual disabilities to participate in athletic events and team sports, says Minton. Camp Shriver, formed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962, was the answer to providing special-needs children and adults a place to compete and to simply have fun during a time when there weren’t many options for them. Shriver went on to found the Special Olympics, and in 1968, the first Special Olympics games were held in Chicago. In 2019, the competition, now called the Special Olympics World Summer Games, will be held in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates.

In early June, Camp Shriver was held at the First Church of the Nazarene in Baton Rouge. With 2,000 Special Olympics athletes in the capital area and neighboring parishes, Minton says Baton Rouge is a prime location to host the camp.

Will Johannessen—who also enjoys basketball, football and playing the drums—has attended Camp Shriver in the past. A student at Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy, he first took swimming lessons at three years old. He later joined the Jefferson Terrace swim team and teamed with the Special Olympics several years ago. “He loves the water,” says Alison. “He spends all summer at the pool. It’s great. It keeps him active and gives him some exercise.”

Will continued swimming and eventually placed in a state Special Olympics swim meet. He was then asked to consider qualifying for the Special Olympics USA Games by racing at a swim camp in Alexandria, says Alison. All along the way, she says the Baton Rouge community has been very encouraging of her son’s endeavors as an athlete. “People have been very supportive of Will,” she says.

As for Will himself, his focus in Seattle this month will be strictly on the water.

“I like to push it to the limits,” says Will.  “I like to swim very fast.”