HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - While the Winter Olympics are starting to wrap up, a group of athletes in the Grand Strand is ramping up their training for their own trip to the games - the Special Olympics 2014 USA games in Princeton, New jersey.
Being an Olympic athlete takes time, dedication, and drive. That's something Coach Van knows a lot about. "They'll actually be doing about 20 hours a week themselves getting prepared for it. But it'll be worth it.
"It's a lot of hard work and a lot of blood, sweat and tears," says athlete Matthew.
But you also need coaches committed to making a difference. Coaches like Coach Van who is in charge of running Horry County's Special Olympics basketball program.
"We couldn't ask for a better Coach. I mean the kids love him. He loves the kids," said Matthew's dad. And his son echoed those sentiments. "I like to say that he's a goof ball, and I love him."
Coach Van leads eight teams in Horry County, and he's getting results. His players took three gold medals in the 2013 Mid-Winter Games in Charleston. Matthew took home a new personal record.
"He scored 16 points. He was, I think, the high scorer for the team," his dad said.
Matthew added, "Well it was the most amazing thing of my life."
But these players are taking away much more than pride in the number of points, steals or assists they make in a game. They're gaining a sense of community.
"It's absolutely fantastic. Just watching the other kids out here. They have such a great time. You can just see it on their faces. You know it gets them involved in team sports," Matthew's dad admitted.
All of these athletes are learning about friendship and belonging, lessons that extend beyond the players to the Horry County Police officers who play alongside them.
"Once you break down those walls, look what you have. It's almost magical. And when I see these athletes at all the events we put on, you know they're extended family. One thing I stressed when I took over was a sense of community. You know, bringing together all of the athletes, all of the volunteers and merging that with officers throughout the county that wanted to grow a better community," the coach said.
That community has grown, and the effort is paying off. In April, all eight Horry County teams will go to Columbia to compete in the South Carolina State Special Olympics Basketball Tournament.
"They know they get to use the USC facilities in Columbia, so that's a real big deal for them. So they're already chomping at the bit," the coach said.
And then in June - the highest honor for the athletes and coaches that play on Horry County's Five-on-Five Unified Team is a chance to go head-to-head with competitors from across the country in the 2014 USA Games.
Matthew's father added, "That's really big for the kids, to travel that far and get to play basketball. I mean to represent South Carolina in a state as far away as New Jersey, that's a big accomplishment for these kids."
The national games run from June 14 until June 21 in Princeton, New Jersey. It's definitely an honor to be chosen, but it's not a cheap trip.
If you would like to make a donation to the Horry County Special Olympics, send it the address or donate on their website: http://www.horrycountyspecialolympics.org/
Horry County Special Olympics
PO Box 51872
Myrtle Beach, SC 29579