Megan Miller went home with a bronze medal after competing in the shot put event during the Special Olympics competition last weekend.
Her family and friends were proud. The crowd celebrated her win. It wasn’t the sort of story that would normally make headlines.
But when an error made by Special Olympics Indiana led to two Huntington University student athletes placing ahead of the 14-year-old Special Olympics athlete with Down syndrome, the story generated backlash on Facebook.
Chriss Miller, Megan’s mother, watched from the stands at Leo Junior-Senior High School on Saturday as event organizers shuffled Megan to her third-place platform.
“Megan likes to get the ‘necklaces,’ as she calls them, and she’s less concerned about whether they are gold, silver or bronze,” Chriss Miller said.
“But we’re sitting there expecting Megan to be first and when the announcer called her name for bronze and then the other girls’ names for silver and gold … my mouth at that point was just hanging open,” Miller added.
A photo showing the two Huntington University student athletes on the first- and second-place platforms and Megan on the third went viral after it was posted to Huntington University’s Facebook page Monday night.
By Wednesday afternoon, the post had been shared nearly 95 times and had gathered dozens of comments, many upset with the university for allowing the students to participate.
Huntington University officials responded to the photo by explaining that the students, whose names they declined to release for privacy reasons, were participating as part of the unified competition where students without disabilities are partnered with students who have disabilities.
“As a university, we encourage our students to give of their personal time to serve the community with partners such as the Special Olympics,” university officials said in a statement. “The students who participated in the Special Olympics event at Leo Junior-Senior High School as unified athletes have volunteered with Special Olympics for the past two years and have been involved in several Special Olympics’ activities and meets.”
The Huntington students never should have competed against Megan, said Jeff Mohler, chief operating officer for Special Olympics Indiana.
“They were supposed to be competing against other unified competitors,” he said. “Those two (Huntington University) students did absolutely nothing wrong.”
But Mohler said he understands the public’s concern, especially after seeing the photo posted without an explanation.
“At face value, if you’re unfamiliar with the way unified sports works, your first inclination would be to think ‘why are people without disabilities competing against those who do?’ and we certainly understand that point of view,” he said.
Huntington County is the only county in northeast Indiana that offers unified competitions, and everyone understands how unified competitions differ from traditional Special Olympics events, Mohler said.
The unified program has been around since the late 1980s but is still new in some parts of the state, including northeast Indiana, he said.
“We form these unified teams where an athlete (a student with disabilities) competes alongside a partner (someone without disabilities), and then those unified teams compete against each other,” he said. “Unified teams do not compete against traditional teams and traditional teams do not compete against unified teams.”
In this case, the two Huntington University students were paired with two Special Olympics athletes who participated in an earlier traditional event, he said.
Because the college students’ partner athletes competed in a traditional Special Olympics event, that left Megan Miller competing against the two students when she shouldn’t have been part of a unified event, Mohler said.
Miller should have been part of a non-unified competition, and the two college students should have participated in the unified event with two Special Olympics athletes, he said.
“Our main concern here is that we made the mistake, and unfortunately people are taking grievance out on Huntington and these students,” Mohler said.
Special Olympics officials are in the process of correcting the mistake and will replace Megan Miller’s bronze medal with the gold medal she deserves, Mohler said. The college students will keep their gold and silver medals, he added.
Chriss Miller said she’s glad to see Special Olympics officials taking steps to fix the problem and hopes it doesn’t happen again.
“Wonderful things did go on that day and it doesn’t put a damper on those things, but Special Olympics is for special students … and there shouldn’t be anybody taking that away from them,” Miller said.