Marcus Onsum is the head coach for all three adapted sports in the physically impaired division at the Robbinsdale/Hopkins/Mound-Westonka cooperative, by far the most dominant program in the state.
Onsom has coached at Robbinsdale since 1995. The co-op has won the past four state championships in both adapted soccer and adapted softball. The adapted floor hockey team has won nine consecutive titles.
"Adapted sports are high-level varsity athletics that anybody and everybody should be able to enjoy," Onsum said, "whether you are a person with a disability or not."
Despite the program's success, Onsom still fights stereotypes and misunderstandings.
Q: How were you introduced to adapted athletics?
A: I have two siblings with muscular dystrophy, and they are both in wheelchairs. My brother, who is three years younger than me, started playing adapted sports not too long after our Robbinsdale program started in the late '80s. My sister joined in when she was old enough.
Q: When did you get involved?
A: After I graduated high school in 1994, the coach of the program asked if I wanted to come help out and be an assistant coach and just see what I could do to help provide some assistance to the team. So I started in January '95 and it has just kind of taken off from there. I was assistant coach until 2000, and then I took over as head coach.
Q: Did you grow up playing sports?
A: Growing up with two siblings with disabilities, it was always kind of my job to adapt the neighborhood sports games and find a way for them to play. We'd play baseball in the front yard with a tennis ball and a wooden bat. The rule was that Steve would have to sit and try and hit the ball on his own. We'd pitch from a shorter distance, and he would automatically get to go to first base if he hit it. In the end, it was not all that different from some of the rules they have for adapted softball.
Q: What has been the biggest factor in your teams' domination?
A: Part of it is the continuity of coaching. Not all programs have the same coaches for all three sports. That has allowed us to really establish our work ethic and our expectations for both students and parents. Virtually all of my kids play on all three teams. I have the same roughly 20 kids all year. I also believe that success breeds more success. There is a lot of tweaking that goes on year to year. I spend a lot of time individually with kids figuring out how to work with disabilities, what they do well, what they need help with.
Q: Is winning games something that you emphasize as a coach?
A: We are varsity level athletics. Just like football or basketball or ice hockey, we go out there and make the best effort to win. But we are not the type of coaches that want to win at all costs. We also feel like we have a responsibility to help these kids develop skills that they are not getting elsewhere. Traditional non-adapted athletes can play sports all their life, and they can learn about leadership and responsibility and goal-setting. Some of our kids never get that experience. So there is a larger teaching element for us. But we found a good way to incorporate that into what we do and yet still try and strive to be the best team we can possibly be.
Q: What is the biggest challenge that you face?
A: There still are still some stereotypes out there, that this is just Special Olympics, or this isn't competitive, it's just kids in wheelchairs. Neither one of those is necessarily true. Educating members of our community, our student body and staff members about what we do — and why we do what we do — is still my personal agenda for doing good things for this program outside of what happens in the games.