Musculoskeletal Institute Practitioners Provide Medical Support for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games
Anthony Johnson, MD, and Tammy Noel, MSN, served on the Medical Team for Team Texas during this year’s event
Reviewed by: Anthony Johnson, MD and Tammy Noel, MSN
Written by: Lauren Schneider
Every four years, athletes convene at the Special Olympics USA Games to compete and connect with others in the intellectual disability community. Among the attendees at this year’s event in Orlando were Anthony Johnson, MD, and Tammy Noel, MSN, two UT Health Austin practitioners from the Musculoskeletal Institute. Along with athletic trainer Dr. Patrick St. Louis, Ed.D., from Texas A&M, the pair was selected to serve as the Medical Team for Team Texas during this month’s competition.
“I think I had as much fun covering the Special Olympic Games as the athletes did competing,” says Noel, a family nurse practitioner at the Musculoskeletal Institute.
Building a relationship with athletes
Noel first got involved with the organization at the suggestion of Dr. Anthony Johnson, who serves an orthopedic surgeon at the Musculoskeletal Institute as well as the Sports Medicine Clinical Director for the Institute’s Sports and Injury Clinic. Dr. Johnson has been affiliated with Special Olympics since his days as a West Point cadet in the early 1990s.
Dr. Johnson and Noel were selected for the state’s Medical Team based on their performance as Special Olympics Clinical Directors for Central Texas, providing health services to athletes in the region. The Clinical Director program has greater ambitions than preventing sports injury at Special Olympics events; a stated goal of the volunteer-based program is to create positive contacts between healthcare providers and people with intellectual disabilities.
According to Dr. Johnson, enhancing the understanding of members of the medical community through experience and interaction can positively impact the relationship between patients with intellectual disabilities and their healthcare providers. “The athletes require somebody that they know and trust to give them good quality care,” he says.
A ”return to normalcy” for the competition
Noel completed her Clinical Director training in January 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Special Olympics activities. “A lot of the athletes are immunocompromised and are at higher risk (of COVID-19 infection),” she says.
According to Noel, the Special Olympics is an important source of community for participants. During the hiatus, athletes “didn’t have this outlet, which is very important to them.”
The 2022 Winter Games in February marked the first post-pandemic competition for Central Texas athletes, but this summer’s USA Games served as the first reunion on a national scale. At the event’s opening ceremony, headlined by singer Sara Bareilles, many of the speakers acknowledged the challenges athletes had overcome during the pandemic.
“That was a big deal, a little bit of return to normalcy,” says Noel. “They got to do all the socializing and competing.”
Unity, friendship, and victory
At this June’s event, Team Texas had the largest delegation besides Florida, with 184 athletes participating in seventeen individual and team sports. Some of these team events were Unified Sports events, meaning teams include athletes without intellectual disabilities. Known as Unified Partners, 61 of these volunteer athletes joined Team Texas at this year’s USA Games for a week of competition and camaraderie.
“Unified Sports encourage inclusion and understanding while having fun. There is a lot of satisfaction for the Unified athletes with and without disabilities,” says Noel. “Training and competing together builds great relationships.”
While no official medal count was taken at the 2022 USA Games, Team Texas had a lot to celebrate. Special Olympics athletes and Unified Sports teams from the Texas delegation ranked highly in their division for many of the week’s events.
Adaptive sports medicine beyond the USA Games
While the unique needs of disabled athletes have become more widely understood in recent years, due in part to wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, adaptive sports medicine of any kind was “not a big component” of training when Dr. Johnson was a medical resident. He has helped address this by incorporating disability topics into residency education in his clinical practice.
Dr. Johnson’s experience with adaptive sports medicine affords his residents valuable exposure to patients with intellectual and physical disabilities. “Most of sports medicine is done on able-bodied athletes,” he says, meaning if a resident’s attending physician does not treat athletes with disabilities, that resident may not have the opportunity to learn about adaptive care.
Other ways Dr. Johnson addresses adaptive sports medicine in his residency education include discussing the needs of disabled patients during presentations and inviting residents to participate in Special Olympics events.
Dr. Johnson’s dedication to serving the sports medicine needs of all patients is one example of UT Health Austin’s commitment to promoting health equity within our community. For more information on how Dell Medical School advances health equity goals through medical education and clinical practice, visit the Office of Health Equity website.
Getting involved with Special Olympics
If you are interested in participating in the Special Olympics, there are many opportunities to do so.
As a volunteer
According to Dr. Johnson, Special Olympics is “always looking for volunteers”.
If you are interested in being a Unified Partner and are over the age of 18, you simply need to follow the regular steps to become a volunteer with no additional forms. Those under the age of 18 must submit the Youth Unified Partner Form.
As an athlete
Those interested in joining Team Texas as a Special Olympics Athlete must complete and submit a medical evaluation. More instructions can be found on the Special Olympics Texas website.
As a fan
The next Special Olympics competition to be broadcast on television is the Unified Cup 2022. Hosted in Detroit, Michigan, this event will feature 22 Unified soccer teams in a World Cup-style tournament. The final game of the tournament will air August 6th on ESPN. No athletes from Texas will represent Team USA at the Unified Cup, but it is still a chance to see a Unified team in action.
Upcoming Central Texas events can be viewed here.
For more information about the Sports and Injury Clinic click here.