BENNER: John Wooden would have been proud of these kids

June 12, 2010

There is little I can add to the deserved tributes to Indiana legend John Wooden. Except to place a couple of recent events in a Wooden-like perspective.

The first was on a recent Thursday evening at Covenant Christian High School for their fifth annual spring sports banquet. Only this one is a little different. It doesn’t honor its own athletes. It honors its opponents.

Throughout the year as they take part in games, meets and matches, coaches ask their Covenant Christian student-athletes to watch for competitors who offer exceptional displays of sportsmanship.

A list is compiled. And at the end of the year, they invite those opponents. They feed them and then they fete them.

“What better way to teach character to our athletes than to have them look for it in our opponents,” said Covenant Christian Athletics Director Andy Gossel.

Appropriately, the banquet program featured a quote from Wooden:

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

I witnessed character development at Covenant Christian.

The next afternoon, I traveled to Terre Haute and Indiana State University for my most inspirational sports moment of the year. It was provided by an athlete who finished last in her swimming event, the 25-yard freestyle.

Her name is Allison Werne. She is from Huntingburg. She was competing in Special Olympics Indiana’s Summer Games.

Allison is wheelchair-bound and intellectually disabled. But year after year, I am compelled to watch this brave lady compete. She is brought to the pool’s edge by her mother, and helped into the water.

But no further assistance is needed. When the starter’s horn sounds, Allison kicks and strokes furiously, slowly but deliberately advancing through the water. Twenty-five yards become 20, then 15, then 10. Her competitors have long finished but the crowd’s focus is on Allison. Finally, she touches the wall, and the cheers for this last-place finisher can be heard all the way to Illinois.

I am reminded of the Special Olympics oath: Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

Allison Werne is the bravest of the brave.

An hour or so later, I am at a reception. Allison Werne is there. I tell her she is my inspiration. But in a moment, I have another. Her name is Jennifer Hoover, an athlete from Tippecanoe County.

Jennifer reads a poem she has written. It’s called “Driven to Win,” which is the theme of the Summer Games:

“I was driven to win; Because of who I am; Not because of who I look like; Not because I learn slower; Not because I’m handicapped; But, because I try to do my best; At whatever I do every day.

“I am driven to win; Because of what God made me to be; And no one can stop me, from doing what God made me to do

“I was driven to win because we all are Miracles from God; Especially those that are different; To show others what can be achieved; when people like me get a chance to show others what people like me can do.”

Intellect tells us that this Special Olympian, Jennifer Hoover, is “intellectually disabled.” But when she ends her poem, I realize her wisdom surpasses that of anyone in the room.

A short time later, we are assembled in ISU’s Hulman Center for the Opening Ceremonies, which are joyously upbeat except for two moments: remembering the founder of Special Olympics, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, with a moment of silence, and a silent prayer for Wooden, who at that moment was gravely ill in a California hospital.

Special Olympics in California and Indiana had been Wooden’s chosen charities. Until he could no longer travel, which was well into his 90s, Wooden made a point of coming to Indianapolis for the John Wooden Tradition, the basketball game that takes place every December at Conseco Fieldhouse.

On the way home from Terre Haute that evening, I learned of Wooden’s passing.

I immediately thought of Allison Werne and Jennifer Hoover and Wooden’s quote:

“Don’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do.”

Within 24 hours, I have witnessed uncommon courage from Allison Werne, uncommon wisdom from Jennifer Hoover, and uncommon character from those youngsters at Covenant Christian.

John Wooden would have loved them.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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