During winter break, I began my Special Olympics journey at the library near my hometown in Pennsylvania. As someone with the very specific and unusual goal of working for the Olympics, it has always been hard to find volunteering opportunities or internships geared toward what I want to do. However, my sister had sent me a list of possible internships to apply for, and that was what I was planning on doing. At the bottom of the list, she wrote this short sentence that has led to all my work with Special Olympics:
“It might be good to look into volunteering with Special Olympics as well.”
That one sentence started my entire Special Olympics journey. In the library, I applied to volunteer at Special Olympics New York’s Winter Games, which were held February 6-8, 2015 in Syracuse, NY. I was selected as a volunteer, made plans to stay at my cousin’s house (thank you, Chris!), and got on the bus to go to Syracuse without quite knowing what to expect.
My experience at the Winter Games was so much fun! I volunteered to help with event set-up and to be a Fan in the Stands for the Opening Ceremony and Figure Skating. The Games were truly a community endeavor with everyone working together to make the event special. I have never been around people who had that much passion for what they do. Just like the Olympics, coaches, athletes, volunteers, and fans united through sport. The feeling of perfect unity between everyone was unbelievably and unexpectedly empowering. I felt like I was part of a whole and that I was actually making a difference in people’s lives. To me, that is the golden feeling of any volunteer experience.
The night of the Opening Ceremony, I joined the anticipation for the athletes’ arrival by making signs to cheer them on. After that, I formed a line with other volunteers. Across from us, local police officers assembled into another line. The athletes swarmed in between our two lines, and suddenly the entire room was filled with so much excitement for the Games to start. Athletes from all areas of New York had come to compete, and many of them were not able to bring their families. Instead, they had us, and judging from the number of high fives we received, I think they appreciated it.
During the Opening Ceremony, there were many speakers, and everyone’s speech was imbued with the magic of the night. One athlete’s speech was particularly heartwarming. She had been a Special Olympics athlete for a long time, and it had really changed her life. She told us that before training with Special Olympics New York, she had not been able to open her hand, and then while at the podium, she opened her hand for all to see. The applause was enormous. To end the night, members of Syracuse’s Law Enforcement community and a Special Olympics athlete carried the Flame of Hope in and lit the official cauldron, and with that, the 2015 Winter State Games were open.
The next day, I was a Fan in the Stands for Figure Skating. Since I am scared of ice skating, I had so much awe for those athletes. Some fell, but they got right back up again. Their skating was beautiful, but their attitudes were even more.
After Figure Skating was over, I went to cheer on Floor Hockey teams. The games could get very intense and kind of violent, but that same sense of unity was there. At one point, one of the players fell down, and every single one of his team members hoisted him up. The teams, coaches, fans, and officials were all there to have fun, and they did it together.
Awards were next, and I watched each of the figure skaters receive their awards. Everyone received either gold or silver, and the athletes were so happy. However, this weekend was not about who won or what medals people received. It was just like the oath pledged by athletes at the start of the Games: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” It only mattered if the athletes were brave, and they all had been. They competed in the spirit of the Olympic Movement and focused on their abilities, not their disabilities. They would have made Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, proud.
Volunteering at the Winter State Games was my first experience with Special Olympics, and it definitely has led me to continue pursuing Special Olympics through events, my internship, and the LA 2015 World Games.
Check in tomorrow for the second day of my countdown to the World Games!