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Bocce makes its way from ancient times to the backyard of John and Katie Toppel

Special Olympics Oregon has embraced bocce as a competitive and much-requested sport!

John and Katie Toppel have a long and proud history of being involved with Special Olympics, starting with their shared time at Villanova. Their passion for volunteering with Special Olympics moved with them to Portland in 2005, when they found their way to the Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) by a combination of happenstance and fate.

Katie was out running when she happened to see and stop at the Special Olympics Oregon office. A mention of her experience with bocce in Pennsylvania led to a deeper conversation about bringing the sport to SOOR.

“They were floored to find someone that had done this for three years,” she said, “we dove in headfirst.” This was also a great way for them to meet people and give back, prior to having their girls, now ages 11 and 9. “Bocce picked us,” said John. “Katie met (Special Olympics Oregon staff) on her run, and she came back and said they wanted her and I to run the program. The combined knowledge of the sport, willingness to volunteer, and John’s ‘ability to manage chaos well’ were the trifecta needed to bring the sport to SOOR. The game changer? They recently installed a bocce court in their backyard for nightly games.

John also assists with soccer, and as a Nike employee, enjoys volunteering at the Youth Games presented by Nike. The Toppels generally help with golf at the Nike Youth Games, which are happening September 30th at Nike World Headquarters. Nike Youth Games provide a terrific introduction for youth wanting to dip their toe into the experience of being a Special Olympic Oregon athlete.

After volunteering for Special Olympics Oregon from 2005 to 2009, the couple moved to Germany for two years and immediately connected with Mark Hanken, Chief Operating Officer of Special Olympics Oregon, upon their return. They were happy to find many familiar faces hadn’t changed in their time away. “The coaches with Special Olympics Oregon stay pretty consistent year to year,” said John.

John’s initial draw to Special Olympics Oregon was personal. His dad’s best friend has five sons, and the youngest of the sibling tribe has Down syndrome. He “dove in because of him,” with the extra perk of having a mom who was a PE teacher. Coaching came naturally.

Katie’s involvement in Special Olympics early on led to her earning a master’s degree when she moved to Portland, where she is now a special education teacher at Durham Elementary in Tigard. Her drive is inclusivity, “making sure all kinds of kids and people have the opportunity to play sports,” she said, “to me, being with the athletes is such a joy. They are so excited to be there and bring so much love to it.” John adds a favorite quote from Nike legend and co-founder Bill Bowerman, “if you have a body, you are an athlete.”

The Toppels’ passion goes beyond any field or court. They volunteer beyond their busy lives and day jobs because “you build relationships with people,” said John, “when Mark (Hanken) calls, he knows we can go run something for them. We like to be a resource in that way and give back.”

It’s vital for the couple to show their girls the importance and value of volunteerism. “It’s important for our kids to experience the joy and get involved,” said Katie.

The Toppel family all have their ‘why’ for their dedication to SOOR. Their daughter Samantha’s favorite thing about volunteering at Special Olympics Oregon is “I like to help people. It’s nice to see people getting cared for.” For Grace, it’s about “the fun in being able to help people learn to play a sport.” Katie loves bocce because everyone can play, especially those who are in a wheelchair. For John, Unified Champions School Sports are his ‘reason’, seeing the way partners work together and stay together.