Maui Special Olympians: ‘A Once in a Lifetime Thing’

Maui’s Special Olympains return from the national games in Orlando with pride, a bronze medal, and indelible memories

On June 1, Eric Thompson and his brother, James, tested positive for COVID. That was less than a week before they were set to compete in the Special Olympics in Orlando. After months of training and anticipation, their spot in the national games was in serious jeopardy.

Jamey Burkett, James Thompson, and Taralyn Fukushima represented Maui at the 2022 national Special Olympics in Orlando. Photo by Sean M Hower

“We were pretty devastated,” says Thompson, who lives with James in Wailuku and was joining his brother in bocce ball as a unified partner.

They missed the opening ceremonies and the single-player competition, but kicked COVID in time to compete together in the unified doubles and unified team events, finishing fourth in both. 

“We were doing everything we could to get well,” says Thompson. “I would have dumped milk over our heads under a full moon if I thought it would have helped.”

When they arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Thompson says they were both slightly overwhelmed by the crowds, TV cameras and sheer spectacle—but mostly ecstatic. 

“The whole thing was a total inspiration,” says Thompson. “Thousands of volunteers, all the other athletes and their families. People coming up to us, loving that we’re from Hawai‘i. A trip to Disney World. It was incredible.”

Joining the Thompson brothers in the Maui delegation were swimmers Taralyn Fukushima and Jamey Burkett of Kahului, who competed in the 50-yard freestyle. Fukushima placed sixth while Burkett earned a bronze medal, taking third.

In all, 30 athletes from the statewide Hui ‘O Hawai‘i delegation brought home 22 medals: five gold, 10 silver, and seven bronze. 

The 2022 International Special Olympics were set to be held in Kazan, Russia, but were canceled after that country’s  invasion of Ukraine, making Orlando the year’s main event. Portions of the games were televised nationally on ESPN and ABC.

Despite its grandeur and prestige, the experience of competing at this level is about more than publicity, prizes or podium places. 

Founded on a Maryland farm in 1968, the Special Olympics have grown vastly in scope. Nearly six million athletes have competed in the games to date. But the organization’s mission remains unchanged: to promote “physical fitness, courage, and joy.”

“It’s such a transformative experience,” says Adrienne Laurion, the regional director of Special Olympics Hawai‘i. “The energy is incredible. And these athletes get to meet people from all over, and make connections for a lifetime.”

Thompson says he and James have already been in touch with friends they made at the games, including their unified team partners, H’opi’o Balaz and Jon Katsuda of Oahu.

“When it was over, James said, ‘When can we do this again?’” recalls Thompson. “I had to tell him, ‘Well, buddy, this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.’ I know James will never forget it, and neither will I.”

For more information about participating in the Special Olympics locally or becoming a unified partner, email 

Jacob Shafer