Special Olympics‘ super volunteer coach

Simone Kokaua, centre, is the beating heart of the Special Olympics Waikato basketball teams. Photo: Supplied.

Simone Kokaua is a force of life and you have to wonder how the Special Olympics basketball coach keeps up with her incredible schedule, at work, at home and on the basketball courts.

“It’s just the way I was brought up,” says the modest volunteer coach who is busy preparing her Waikato team for the Freemasons New Zealand Special Olympics National Summer Games. 

This week is National Volunteer Week, and Kokaua embodies why volunteers are the fuel that keep organisations like Special Olympics running.

More than a decade ago, Kokaua was first introduced to Special Olympics when dropping off her nephew at basketball practice, but was not impressed at how some of the coaches preferred to give only the most skilful players court time. 

“And that’s not what Special Olympics is about and I knew they could do a lot better, so when my sister asked me to help, I put my hand up,” says Kokaua, who has not looked back.

“It is my belief that every athlete should be challenged, whatever their abilities. It’s important we do this to ensure that everyone feels valued, and like they’re a part of the family.”

Her involvement with Special Olympics New Zealand has seen her coach at several National Summer Games, two World Games in Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi and she is now even on the board of Special Olympics NZ and chairs the Central North Island Regional committee.

Kokaua almost sounds surprised when asked what motivates her to invest so much time and energy into athletes with intellectual disabilities.

“They are great teachers,” the Hamilton grandmother laughs. 

“The athletes have taught me so much about how to treat other people and I still learn so much from them.”

She says that her involvement with the athletes also inspired her to pursue a new professional career in later life, completing a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science and more recently a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Exercise Physiology at Wintec.

Kokaua now works as the Biokinetic clinic supervisor at Wintec’s Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance, where she supports people with chronic diseases to improve their health and quality of life through physical activity and movement.

Watching the Special Olympics Waikato basketball players under Kokaua’s guidance, it is easy to see how her involvement has enriched the athletes’ lives, as individuals and as a group.

“It is important to see them as whole people, with all their strengths, instead of not seeing past their disability.”

One regular feature of each Waikato team practice is the invitation to recite the Special Olympics Athlete’s Oath, either in Te Reo Māori or in English.

“At the start, most of them would be too nervous to stand up or just whisper, but we have created a safe space where they can give it a go, and now you can see how their confidence has grown and they stand up with so much pride,” says Kokaua, who clearly relishes the personal growth of her athletes.

The National Summer Games are held from December 8-12 in Hamilton and Kokaua says she and her athletes “are amped” to be playing in front of their whānau and encourages Waikato people to get involved, either as spectators or as volunteers.

The National Summer Games need 600 volunteers to make the huge operation come to life and so far over 500 volunteers have already signed up.

“The Games are going to be an amazing experience,” says Kokaua. 

“So make sure you don’t miss out on the opportunity to be part of the action.”




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