2020 Spirit of Special Olympics Awards

by | Oct 28, 2020 | Press Room, Spotlight

The Spirit of Special Olympics Awards program is the annual recognition of athletes, coaches, volunteers, families, and Law Enforcement Torch Run officers who have demonstrated outstanding support of Special Olympics Indiana over the course of the past year — and in many cases, for much longer than that.

Nominations for each category are submitted by counties, before winners are selected by each of Indiana’s 10 Area Management Teams. From that list of finalists, our Board of Directors then votes to decide on state winners, honored each fall at our State Conference.

Watch the virtual presentation of our 2020 Spirit of Special Olympics Awards.

Athlete of the Year

LIZ STRONG, AREA 8

Athlete Liz Strong, from Indianapolis, has overcome tremendous challenges in her life but has never stopped smiling. A leader on the playing field and off, Liz is a self-advocate and aspiring Global Messenger who is known for her sense of humor and positivity.

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Named in honor of former President & CEO Michael Furnish, our Athlete of the Year Award recognizes the accomplishments — both on the playing field and off — of an athlete who embodies the spirit of Special Olympics through hard work, determination, and a positive attitude.

Many Special Olympics athletes get started at an early age. But that’s not the case for Indianapolis native Liz Strong, as she wasn’t born with a disability. Instead, she was the victim of a horrendous crime when she was shot in the head by a fellow teenager.

The young man was incarcerated for a few years while Liz fought for her life in a coma. When she woke up, she was sightless and paralyzed on her left side. She was so glad to be alive that, for her own peace of mind, she had to forgive the shooter. She now says that’s how she “got even” — and that positive attitude has served her well in the years since.

When she recovered and returned to high school, Liz joined the local Special Olympics program where she participated in bowling and track and field until graduation. After taking a few years off and focusing on work, she rejoined the program in 2010. And though she continues to work 10-hour shifts three days a week, Liz has regularly competed in track and field, bowling, bocce, corn toss, and swimming.

Fundraising has also been an important activity for Liz, as she has participated in the Butler University Polar Plunge for the past three years. She appreciates the help from the safety team that assists participants up and down the pool ladders at the plunge, but she and a fellow athlete were inspired this year to make a change and to take the lead in replacing those difficult ladders with steps. The result was a safer, better, and more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Liz’s leadership efforts don’t end there, however, as she is currently studying communications in ALPs University. Her ultimate goal is to become a global messenger and to use her experiences, her incredible sense of humor, and her enduring optimism to be a self-advocate and to promote Special Olympics locally, nationally, and one day at the international level.

She is an inspiration to everyone who knows her, and Special Olympics Indiana is extremely pleased to present the 2020 Michael Furnish Athlete of the Year Award to Liz Strong, from Washington Township and Area 8.

Volunteer of the Year

BOBBIE BINGGELI, AREA 2

An invaluable member of our community, Bobbie Binggeli has embodied the Spirit of Special Olympics over the course of more than 30 years of service as a coach, volunteer, administrator, and Unified partner. As chair of the Borden Polar Plunge, Bobbie led a committee that raised more than $100,000 for Special Olympics Indiana in 2020.

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Our 2020 Volunteer of the Year first got involved in Special Olympics way back in 1990, when her son, Steven, joined as an athlete in Clark County. She began by transporting athletes to swim meets and helping with paperwork, but within a year or so, she became Assistant Swim Coach and joined the County Management Team as Fundraising Coordinator.

When basketball was introduced locally, Bobbie stepped up to lead the skills program. When golf coaches were needed, she completed the required training and certification while also serving as a Unified partner. And when Area 2 needed additional volunteers for Spring Games and the Area Bowling Tournament, she was quick to help again.

Within a few years, she stepped up and volunteered to become Area Director — building a strong program and hosting first-class competitions even while doing double duty as a utility player on her County Management Team and helping out in every way imaginable.

In 2008, Bobbie served as chair of the first Polar Plunge in her area, at Borden’s Deam Lake. She has spearheaded a total of 13 Polar Plunges for Special Olympics Indiana in the years since, leading a committee that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the athletes, including more than $100,000 in 2020 alone.

Her dedication over the course of 30 years is inspiring, and the impact of her generosity has been felt by countless athletes in Clark-Floyd Counties, in Area 2, and across the state. Congratulations Bobbie, and thanks for all you do!

Coach of the Year

ROB ALLEN, AREA 3

As Sports Coordinator for DeKalb County, Coach Rob Allen has a hand in every single sport offered locally — working to instill in his athletes the same discipline and values he used in leading the local basketball team to an undefeated record and a gold medal finish at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.

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Like many Special Olympics volunteers, Rob Allen first became involved when his son, Brady, joined our newly formed DeKalb County program as an athlete in 2010. But what started as a simple way to give back soon grew into a passion for coaching that continues today, as Coach Rob helped to form DeKalb’s first basketball team with a group of three young athletes who had never played before and grew that little team into an amazing basketball program.

In addition to coaching, Rob is a dedicated volunteers who has served on the County Management Team in a variety of roles. He is now Treasurer, Fundraising Co-Chair, and Sports Coordinator — working to ensure that the culture and spirit of Special Olympics is deeply embedded in every sports practice and competition. He serves as head coach, assistant coach, or volunteer for every sport offered locally, guiding his teams through effective practice techniques and promoting healthy competition, belief in one’s ability, valuing teammates, and personal accountability for one’s attitude and treatments of others.

In 2018, Rob coached a young and inexperienced basketball team to an undefeated record and a gold medal finish at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. Their amazing success story reflects the leadership, talent, commitment, and inspiration that he and his coaching staff continue to bring to every competition.

Congratulations to Coach Rob Allen, our 2020 Spirit of Special Olympics Coach of the Year!

Family of the Year

THE HUNNICUTT FAMILY, AREA 2

Andy and Mindy Hunnicutt — from the appropriately named town of Hope in Bartholomew County — have a long history of community service that extends to causes beyond Special Olympics. But when their daughter, Becca, became interested in sports, the local program gained not just an athlete but an entire family of truly incredible people. 

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For Andy and Mindy Hunnicutt, the importance of serving their community and giving back to others has been an inherent part of their lives since their youth. In the early years of their marriage, those instincts led them to be involved in a variety of causes. But as the family grew, sports became a large part of their children’s lives and they soon found a calling to serve as coaches and to share their many skills and talents.

And when their youngest child, Becca, grew older and needed an outlet for sports, they sought out the best option for their daughter who has never let her disability define her. Andy, Mindy, or one of the older children were always with her as she became a part of Special Olympics Bowling. Basketball was next, and after getting involved in the local skills program, there was no looking back.

From that point forward, the entire family has been active in various Special Olympics sports and has lent their knowledge and enthusiasm to the athletes, coaches, and volunteers. As the older children have begun to leave home for college, careers, and families of their own, they have continued to find ways to stay engaged in Special Olympics and to support Becca on her journey.

The Hunnicutts are known for their generous donations of time, money, and resources, and they are outstanding advocates for Special Olympics in their community — helping to find new and continuing support for their local program and for all of Special Olympics Indiana. They have asked their local schools to become more inclusive and have worked to create volunteer opportunities to get local students involved. Andy and Mindy have also hosted exchange students from around the world and even they have gotten involved in supporting Special Olympics over the years.

For their unrelenting dedication to serving the athletes of Special Olympics Indiana — in Bartholomew-Brown-Jennings Co. and beyond — we are pleased to name the Hunnicutts our 2020 Spirit of Special Olympics Family of the Year. Congratulations to Andy, Mindy, Becca and the whole family!

LETR Officer of the Year

ASST. CHIEF TONY RIVERA, AREA 8

Assistant Chief Tony Rivera, of the Butler University Police Department, is a dedicated public servant whose leadership and generosity has impacted the lives of countless Butler students and Special Olympics athletes alike.

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As the largest grass-roots fundraiser and public awareness vehicle for Special Olympics, the Law Enforcement Torch Run program relies upon officers and staff from law enforcement agencies around the world to become active in volunteering and raising money for local programs.

Butler University PD Asst. Chief Tony Rivera has been involved in the LETR for the past seven years, demonstrating outstanding support of Special Olympics athletes and programs in Indianapolis and across the state. Asst. He has regularly gone above and beyond in his efforts as both a volunteer and fundraiser, working to raise money and awareness through events including the Polar Plunge, Strikes for Special Olympics Indiana, Tip-A-Cop, and Cop on a Rooftop in addition to Summer Games and other local events.

Most importantly, Asst. Chief Rivera steps up to help every time he is asked, working tireless behind the scenes to bring his department together in support of Special Olympics Indiana. Last year alone, nearly $70,000 was raised under his leadership — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

For all these reasons and more, Special Olympics Indiana is proud to name Asst. Chief Tony Rivera our 2020 LETR Officer of the Year.

Dennis Schmidt Impact Award

DR. MARY CICCARELLI, STATE VOLUNTEER

A dedicated medical educator whose work is focused on improving care for people with disabilities, Dr. Mary Ciccarelli is an outstanding advocate for athletes and a long-time Special Olympics Indiana volunteer who serves as Clinical Director for Health Promotion.

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Since 2004, the President & CEO of Special Olympics Indiana has had the honor of recognizing one individual each year who exemplifies the “Spirit of Special Olympics” but who may often go unnoticed, someone who places the athletes above themselves and who helps to grow the Special Olympics movement in Indiana and beyond. This award is named in honor of Dennis Schmidt, who served as Special Olympics Indiana’s first president.

Over the course of a long and distinguished career in medicine and academia, Dr. Mary Ciccarelli has touched countless lives in the classroom and the exam room. A devoted medical educator who now serves as a Professor of Clinical Medicine and Clinical Pediatrics for the Indiana University School of Medicine, she initiated a much-needed program designed to educate medical students and health care workers on the fundamentals and best practices of caring for patients with intellectual disabilities.

In addition to teaching, Dr. Ciccarelli also provides primary care services to children and adults with disabilities. Her dedicated work is focused on improving care for this population and ultimately reducing or even eliminating the many health care disparities that hinder people, including Special Olympics athletes, from living fulfilled lives.

Dr. Ciccarelli also has been involved in volunteering for Special Olympics Indiana’s Health Athletes and Healthy Communities programs for many years, serving as Clinical Director for Health Promotion and playing an instrumental role in the planning and administration of Healthy Athletes screenings at state competitions.

Congratulations to our 2020 Dennis Schmidt Impact Award recipient, Dr. Mary Ciccarelli!