Sam Shelton finds big rewards with flag football team

Sam Shelton thought he’d just get a little exercise and do a good deed when he started participating in Special Olympics athletics back in 2011. Little did he know it would become one of the most important parts of his life. Or that he and his flag football teammates would be heading to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games this summer.

Sam plays quarterback on the Federal Way Thunder flag football team, a program of Special Olympics Unified Sports®. Unified Sports teams combine athletes with and without intellectual disabilities (ID), and Sam is a team member who doesn’t have an ID. “But I don’t see my teammates’ disabilities,” he says. “We’re all equals on the football field, and are all finding ways to turn our challenges into strengths.”

A job as an inclusion coordinator for the City of Federal Way led Sam to Special Olympics. “One of my responsibilities was planning events, and that brought me in contact with Special Olympics and its athletic opportunities. I played on a basketball team first, then moved on to flag football 2 years ago.”

The 33-year-old Kaiser Permanente member is now a mental health therapist for at-risk youth in Olympia, but he’s still going strong with Special Olympics. “The athletics are as competitive as any sport I’ve experienced anywhere, including at college,” he says. “Our incredible head coach, Clay Williams, puts a big focus on sportsmanship, motivation, and teamwork. And we’re all good friends, on and off the field.”

Special Olympics Team Washington flag football athlete Sam Shelton
Sam Shelton, a flag football athlete on Team Washington and a Kaiser Permanente member.

Sam and his teammates made an important decision after qualifying for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games at the Washington state championships last December. “We talked about how we could take it easy until the Games and just go and have fun, or we could work really hard until then and go for a medal. We decided to go for the gold, although any medal will be great.”

Since then they’ve been practicing 3 times a week, studying football plays, and getting better and better at working as a team. “We were up against 200 teams at the state championships — some more athletic than us. We were able to win because we work really well as a team, and we plan to capitalize on that again at nationals.”

Sam says every day is like the last day of school these days for him and his teammates. “We’re so excited about competing in the Games and making Team Washington proud. It’s all we can think about.” And he has a message for you: “We hope you’ll come out to the Games and watch. It’s going to be lots of fun.”