A special honour for Penny McDowall

Andrew Smiley presents Penny McDowall with her Coach of the Year Award.

It was a night to honour those who have contributed to helping Special Olympics Cayman Islands athletes, so it was fitting that one of the most active coaches was bestowed with a special honour.

At the Special Olympics Cayman Islands Unsung Heroes Gala at the Kimpton Seafire on Saturday, 21 January, local coach Penny McDowall was named Special Olympics North America’s Coach of the Year.

“Penny, there’s no question from what I’ve learned that through your efforts and achievements that you do that each day that you serve,” said Marc Edenzon, the president of Special Olympics North America in a recorded video address.

“On behalf of Special Olympics North America, we congratulate you, we thank you and wish you the best in your future endeavours coaching our athletes, definitely setting a standard that every coach throughout the world wishes to achieve,” he added.

McDowall, a special needs teacher, has been at the forefront of helping local Special Olympics athletes to reach their full potential for several years. She is the first coach from the Caribbean to be named Special Olympics North America’s Coach of the Year.

Her most prominent protégé, swimmer Andrew Smiley, was on hand to present the award.

“I speak for myself and other athletes of Special Olympics and even the world when I say thank you for the training, the support, the discipline, the food and helping us to work hard and stay on the right path,” he said. “You have helped a lot of us achieve more than anyone thought possible. Thank you for believing in us.”

In a tribute that included a 2009 report from Cayman 27’s Let’s Talk Sports about McDowall’s involvement in the local Special Olympics movement being played on big screens, several pairs of eyes could not help but tear up momentarily as the local coach was honoured.

Mrs McDowall also won the Road Warrior Award. L-R: Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, Jennifer Ahearn, Penny McDowall, SOCI Chairman Adrian Lynch.

Always reluctant to be in the spotlight, McDowall accepted the award from Smiley before making very brief remarks.

“Thank you all so much. You have no idea what Special Olympics has done for me. I don’t do anything, the athletes do it all,” she said, before adding “It is just the smile on their face that makes it worth it.”

McDowall has been the driving force of the Special Olympics Cayman Islands swimming program for over two decades. Starting at a local special needs school, the Lighthouse School, in 1991, she realized the need for a learn-to-swim program for students. Despite having recently retired from teaching, McDowall continues to serve as the head coach for Special Olympics Cayman Island’s swimming program – the largest of the country’s Special Olympics sports. In 2015, she coached SOCI athletes in open water swimming at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles, CA.

Special Olympics Caribbean honored McDowall as coach of the year in 2007 and in 2009 she was recognized by Special Olympics International with the Exemplary Coach Award – one of forty coaches worldwide, and the only coach from the Caribbean, to receive this honor. In 2011, McDowall received the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honor for contributing to the community through Special Olympics. In 2014, she was the Cayman Island Sports Department Honoree as part of its Honoring Women Month.

McDowall has been SOCI’s Sports Director and has served on the local board. She was instrumental in the addition of Open Water Swimming as an official Special Olympics International sport by presenting and helping host international training workshops, as well as being on the Sports Resource Team that helped steward the sport’s addition.

McDowall has trained her Special Olympics athletes to compete in community-based open water swim events and has gotten them involved in mainstream sports clubs in order to help showcase and expand the skills her athletes gain through Special Olympics.

As a certified trainer in first-aid, McDowall has taken the lead to conduct first-aid training for SOCI coaches and volunteers. She is a strong proponent of Special Olympics’ Healthy Athletes program (free health screenings for athletes) and volunteers at the SOCI Healthy Athletes Fair every year; often transporting athletes to make sure they don’t miss out on the opportunity. McDowall is also active with Special Olympics’ Athlete Leadership program, which provides athletes meaningful leadership roles in Special Olympics, and has supported one of her swimmers in joining the SOCI Board of Directors.

The Coach of the Year Award was established in the late 1980’s and is given annually to an active, certified Special Olympics coach who has met several criteria, particularly their having made a significant and demonstrable impact on local Special Olympics Programs and their communities. There are more than 130,000 coaches within Special Olympics North America, providing instruction and competition in more than 32 sports. The impressive scope and contributions of all those coaches, puts this momentousness of this award into perspective.

Thirteen individuals representing the United States, Canada and the Caribbean were named 2016 Coach of the Year finalists, and represent Special Olympics North America’s most exemplary coaches – true leaders and dedicated volunteers who serve as role models to other coaches, inside and outside of Special Olympics. McDowall’s nomination was made by fellow Special Olympics Cayman Islands volunteer, Antoinette ‘Tonie’ Johnson, who received the SOCI Chairman’s Award for her active involvement. McDowall was also presented with the Road Warrior Award for her outstanding contributions to the programme.

Several other awards were presented on the evening, including Long Service Volunteer Awards for those who have served for 10 or more years. Awarded with this were: Myrtle Brandt

Eric Crutchley (Posthumous), Deborah Ebanks, Cline & Gloria Glidden, Jerry Harper, Nadine Hayle, Elizabeth Ibeh, Charles Jennings, Aileen Samuels (Posthumous), Kim Short, Nicole Thompson, and Ken Figueira.

Ilean Powery and Deanna Smith, the two newest volunteers were presented with the Rookie Award. The Circle of Joy Award was given to Fareed Hosein, while the Hyper Helper Award went to the youngest volunteer – Zayda Rankine. Lois Moody was given the Shining Star Award, while Leslie Hydes was named the winner of the Jack of All Jobs Award.

Susan Whittaker got the Cheerleader Award, while Sarah Cayasso was presented with the Star Service Award. The Unified Partner Award was given to Wanda Viscount. Hot Seat Award: Nick Freeland. Maxine Everson Award: Vanessa Hansen Allott. Leadership Award: Dr. Elaine Campbell. Longevity Award: Julie Kandler. Penny McDowall Award: Jenny Stuesser.

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