With athletes trained in resilience, Special Olympics helps members maintain mental and physical fitness through virtual events

Michael Heup, a Special Olympics athlete who has become a leading advocate for people with disabilities, took a deep breath as the torch approached. Heup, who started his Special Olympics career in 2001, has previously competed in soccer, basketball, tennis, snowshoe and other events.

“It’s disappointing that we can’t have large-scale events and gatherings, but we are excited to be back doing what we love,” he said. “Sports!”

His teammate behind him threw his fist in the air.

The small gathering stood in stark contrast to the boisterous crowd of thousands of athletes and law enforcement officials who have rallied around the torch lighting each year.

For 50 years, Special Olympics Maryland has fostered community for thousands of people with disabilities. Weekly trainings and annual tournaments have provided opportunities for connection and purpose, inspiring confidence among people historically subjected to social ostracism.

But when the pandemic took hold in March, Special Olympics Maryland, among other chapters nationwide, was forced to cancel practices, basketball tournaments, kayaking championships and its Summer Games.

A spring and summer void of sporting events could have been catastrophic for the nonprofit and those who rely on it. Instead, it blossomed into a vibrant virtual community buoyed by the signature fortitude of its athletes.

Over the past six months, state chapters of the Special Olympics have launched a series of virtual events that have helped maintain active routines for hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual and physical disabilities. In Maryland, Special Olympics leadership spearheaded weekly online fitness classes. And they launched walk, run and biking challenges, customizing a mobile app to track activity. They have also established online social clubs, including one that throws a virtual dance party every Saturday night.

“What we offer at Special Olympics, it is an essential part of our athletes’ social interaction,” said Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland. “But what you and I have experienced in the pandemic as it relates to isolation is more close to what our athletes experience historically on a daily basis. So in some cases, our athletes have adapted better than anyone.”

Monique Matthews, a 30-year-old athlete from Baltimore, has been a regular track-and-field competitor with the Special Olympics for eight years. Before the pandemic, she spent many of her days looking forward to Tuesdays and Saturdays, when she would meet with her friends to hone her running skills.

While she noticed people around her mourn the loss of their routines, Matthews simply found new ones online when the public health crisis mandated isolation.

“I just don’t look at it as a pandemic. I look at it as an opportunity to get to know myself better,” she said.

Once shy and afraid to speak her mind, Matthews has taken advantage of the comfortable virtual environment to become a leader among athletes statewide. Over the past six months, she has started leading Zoom sessions about police brutality and teaching online exercise classes that leave fellow athletes sweaty and tired.

“Right now, I feel

Troubling Sleep Disorder in Athletes a Sign of CTE?

Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is surprisingly common in athletes and may signal chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by brainstem tau and Lewy body pathologies, new research suggests.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disorder linked to years of repetitive head impacts from playing professional football and other contact sports.

“Repetitive head impacts may damage sleep-relevant brainstem nuclei and lead to REM sleep behavior disorder,” senior author Thor Stein, MD, PhD, neuropathologist at VA Boston Healthcare in Massachusetts, said in a webinar hosted by the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

“This is something both athletes and their doctors need to be aware of,” added Stein, who is an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

The findings were published online September 17 in Acta Neuropathologica.

Surprising Findings

In RBD, the paralysis that normally occurs during REM sleep is incomplete or absent, causing people to act out their dreams by talking, flailing their arms and legs, punching, kicking and other behaviors while asleep. 

“The disorder often comes to medical attention when there is an injury or potential for injury to the individual or the individual’s bed partner,” Stein noted.

To investigate ties between CTE and RBD, the researchers analyzed the brains of 247 deceased male athletes who played contact sports; the brains were donated to the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank.

The athletes died at a mean age of 63 years. They all had a neuropathological diagnosis of CTE. Their relatives provided information on sleep.

Nearly one third of these athletes (n = 80, 32%) with CTE displayed symptoms characteristic of RBD when they were alive. “That really surprised us,” said Stein. “This is about 30 times more than what’s reported in the general population, where it has been estimated to be present in about 1% of people,” he noted.

In addition, there was a clear dose-response effect. Athletes with CTE and RBD had played contact sports for significantly more years than their peers without RBD (18.3 vs 15.1 years; P = .02). 

“The odds of reporting RBD symptoms increased about 4% per year of play,” first author Jason Adams, an MD/PhD student now at the University of California San Diego, said in a statement.

New Insight

The results also point to a potential cause for RBD.

Compared with athletes who had CTE and no RBD, those with CTE and RBD were four times more likely to have tau pathology within brainstem nuclei involved in REM sleep (odds ratio [OR], 3.96; 95% CI, 1.43 – 10.96; P = .008). Athletes with CTE and RBD were also more likely to have Lewy body pathology (OR, 2.36; 95% CI, 1.18 – 4.72; P = .02).

“Contrary to our expectations, tau pathology in the raphe nuclei was more strongly associated with RBD than Lewy body pathology, suggesting that tau pathology is more likely to lead to sleep dysfunction in CTE,” Stein said.

Christopher John Nowinski, PhD, cofounder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said this study