During her freshman year at Central (Cheyenne, Wyo.) High, Shelby Dial found herself in an unexpected position: assistant basketball coach.
Dial said the Wyoming Special Olympics affiliate was short staffed, and she was asked to step into the role.
“We needed an extra hand and eye on our athletes, and she was the most prominent person to be able to help,” said Wanda Brent, the local coordinator for the Cheyenne division of the Special Olympics. “She’s an all-around good sports person. She loves helping the athletes.”
Despite having played basketball for only two years growing up, Dial’s lack of coaching experience hardly deterred her from embracing the role. She resourced Central basketball coaches to learn passing and shooting drills, which she’d then teach to her team of Special Olympics athletes, who practiced inside the gym at South High in Cheyenne twice a week.
Dial’s older sister was born with Spina Bifida, Diamond Blackfan anemia (a rare genetic blood disorder) and cleft palate. Her involvement with Special Olympics athletes began at age six on the sidelines, where she’d cheer on her sister, who participated in basketball, bowling and track.
A couple of years later, Dial took her support a step further and became a Special Olympics Unified Sports Partner, a role that allowed her to be an active participate during practices and games to help guide the athletes.
She immersed herself in other sports, whether or not she had the know-how. By the end of her freshman year, Dial added snowboarding and track to her coaching repertoire and expanded to soccer, bowling, snowshoeing, skiing and softball the following year.
“It got a little intense,” said Dial, a junior. “But I love the athletes, and to see their passion makes me happy and makes me want to put in extra effort.”
Not even a car accident last May, which left Dial with an injured left arm and forced her to give up playing soccer, could keep her from coaching two-hour basketball practices each week.
Dial doesn’t lament her inability to move her left hand, fingers or elbow. She’s too busy organizing assemblies and speaking at high schools around Wyoming about the negative impact of the “R word” and what students and the community can do to bring unified sports, which unites individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team, into schools.
“A lot of times you see athletes with disabilities left in the dust,” Dial said. “Everyone looks at ‘special needs’ as ‘disability’, but they have the ability.”
Dial’s commitment scales on a national level, too. Last year, she was selected to the Youth Activation Committee (YAC), a division of Special Olympics that focuses on education and youth leadership through Project Unify. As committee co-chair, she helped organize the Special Olympics North America (SONA) leadership conference for YAC staff members.
“Her passion continued to thrive the minute she got involved with Special Olympics,” said Rebecca Ralston, Special Olympics manager for Youth Leadership, and Project UNIFY. “That passion drives her to be a dedicated and strong leader. She’s an example of what it means to spread inclusion and acceptance.”
This year, Dial intends to execute more summits at high schools around the state in an effort to foster respect for people with intellectual disabilities and also continue to integrate Unified Sports into schools.
“This is what I love to do. It’s what drives me,” Dial said. “You have a heart for a reason. Reach out and find people who need you and make them happy.”