Gifted Games keeps on growing, 1,500 gather this year

A San Benito Gifted cheerleader competes in the 10th annual Gifted Games May 15 at San Benito High School.

HOLLISTER—As Tania Sauer made her way around the track at San Benito High School, special education students called out for her with smiles beaming across their faces.
They ran up and hugged “Ms. Tania”, as she is affectionately known on the Hollister campus, or waved excitedly as they walked by. She holds a special place in the heart of these students as she and her husband Sam Sauer help bring them the annual Gifted Games.
Tania, a teacher at San Benito High School, began volunteering with the Gifted Games nine years ago. As she stared out at the crowd during the May 15 event, she was in disbelief over how much it has grown. The games, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, started with 30 students participating in non-traditional games like balancing eggs on a spoon and potato sack races. This year, 380 athletes from the San Benito, Gilroy and Aromas-San Juan unified school districts descended on San Benito High School to take part in the games.
“We made this event from 30 people, just 30 kids out here jumping around, to now this event where I have 380 athletes, 150 student helpers and a 1,000 kids in the stands watching us,” Tania said. “It’s just so great that the school has accepted it.”
The event’s growth can be credited to Tania and Sam’s unique relationship. When Tania met her husband Sam, who teaches at Gilroy High, they came up with the idea to combine the event. They turned it into an event that spans districts and alternates between the two schools.
The couple spends all year planning the games. They start by choosing a date and then begin getting the information to the different schools and teachers as waivers are needed to get the students out of class for the day. The Sauers coordinate transportation, food, decorations and get the coveted Gifted Games medals ready for the athletes to receive after the final event. It’s a lot of work for a few hours, but Sam said it’s definitely worth it.
“It’s all about the smiles on the participants’ faces at the end of the day. This is the highlight of their year for many of the students,” Gilroy High’s Sam said. “They get the spotlight; they have 1,000 students in the stands cheering them all on.”
Since San Benito County doesn’t have a Special Olympics chapter, this event is a once-a-year chance for the special ed students to participate in events they miss out through Hollister Rec or the high school athletic programs. And though the districts do not sponsor it, GUSD Program Specialist Robert Whelan said they happily give the Gifted Games their full support with whatever is needed.
“I think the kids really enjoy it. They love being able to play for the day,” Whelean said of the event. “I think it’s important for the parents and families to be able to enjoy it with their kids and (to) have some sense of normalcy.”
There are no scores being recorded and no one can place higher than anyone else. Instead, Tania said, the idea of the day is to encourage fitness and for the athletes to do their best. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t competitive.
“(I like) that I can contribute a lot to this school and see everybody do their best. (I like) to know that (Gilroy) is the best at what it is and to know that our school is ready to put some muscle in it,” said Juliet Brandon, a 20-year-old special ed student at Gilroy High School.
While Brandon competes in events like the Turbo Javelin Throw or the Running Long Jump, she receives words of encouragement from not only her teammates, but from the Balers’ Gifted Cheerleaders, too.
Gifted Cheerleaders like Karissa Agan encouraged all the athletes, who range from 3 to 25 years old. Agan and her teammates even performed a special routine during the games to Tayler Swift and Rihanna songs, which she said was her favorite moment of the day.
“I love it; we do a lot of songs, different songs,” San Benito’s Agan said. “It was really fun.”
It’s a rare sight to see Mustangs, Cougars and Balers working side-by-side and cheering each other on, but the students from all the schools work together seamlessly—just like the Sauers.
Tania said she’s thrilled with how the event runs now, but would love to see it expand to include other districts like Morgan Hill. For her and Sam, the more smiling faces, the better.
“They may not do it right all the time, but they give their best shot,” Tania said. “I just can’t get over how fun this is. Stressful? Yes, but so much fun.”
“Although it’s a lot of work, we’ll get letters in the mail from parents with pictures of their child participating with a big smile of their face,” a beaming Sam added. “Kids will wear their medals weeks after the event and wear their medal to school everyday. That’s what makes it all worth it.”