“Smiling Is My Favorite Sport.”

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Time to play softball!

Last Saturday, Special Olympics New York – New York City hosted a Regional Softball Tournament on Randall’s Island. While there, athletes competed on softball teams or in individual skills. Both types of softball were really exciting to watch, and as always, the athletes didn’t disappoint. They were so happy to be there. One of the softball skills athletes even told me, “Smiling is my favorite sport,” which of course made me smile. That athlete then proceeded to win gold in his division, and his smile was huge. He won in softball skills and at his favorite sport, smiling.

It was a really fun day for the athletes, staff, volunteers, and referees. It was beautiful outside, and everyone was happy to be outside on such a nice day. The day began with the athletes warming up, volunteers arriving, and the Parade of Athletes, which is always my favorite part. Volunteers formed two lines, and athletes from every team and borough run in the middle and high five or hug every volunteer. An athlete even stuck his arms out, so he could high five both sides of volunteers. It really built the excitement for the volunteers and the athletes.

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Laura Behnke, a sports anchor at WABC, was the MC of the event. She welcomed everyone there, and then the two IMG_6653selected athletes ran in with the torch. They were from the Manhattan Wildcats because Manhattan was hosting the tournament. By this time, we were all so excited for the games to start, but first, an athlete had to lead everyone in the Athletes’ Oath. Everyone, including the volunteers, repeated “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” And with that, it was time for the day to begin!

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I traveled around the fields taking photos throughout the day. I had never been that close to a softball game, so it was a very cool and new experience for me. At first, I was worried that I would mess the players up if I was on the field taking photos, but one of the coaches told me the athletes loved it. I’m really glad that I watched part of the Little League World Series this summer because I was able to understand more of what was happening.

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This was my first time really watching Special Olympics teams interact, and I loved it. The teams were true teams; they were all in it together. If someone struck out and was upset, at least two of his or her teammates came over and helped that person feel better. They knew, unlike most sports teams, that one of the goals was to win but the other goal was to be teamplayers.

The skills portion of the tournament happened at the same time as the softball games, and I really enjoyed watching it. Some athletes who competed in skills came with teams, and some didn’t. Athletes competed in hitting, fielding, throwing, and base running. The goal of skills is to include athletes who are still learning the type of skills needed to play on a team.

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Hitting

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Fielding

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Throwing

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Base Running

After the skills were over, it was time for the Awards Ceremony! This was one of my favorite parts of the day because no matter what medal the athletes won, they were still so excited and proud of themselves.

Here are some of the photos of athletes celebrating their medals in style:

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The U.S. Open!

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Here I am at the U.S. Open!

On August 31, I went to intern at Special Olympics New York expecting a normal day. I was kind of sad because the summer was over, school was starting soon, and it had been the best summer of my life. I settled into my desk to do some work, and then the mail came. At around 9:50 am, my supervisor asked me and the other intern if we wanted to go to the U.S. Open at 11 am! She had received free tickets in the mail, so off we went! It was so nice of her!

I was extremely excited! Every year, the U.S. Open happens in Queens, and every year, I look into volunteering or attending. This was the year I finally went! It reminded me that even though summer was over, Special Olympics New York will still be full of magical new experiences and surprises.

The other intern and I hurried onto the subway, and we got there a little before 11! I had to check my bag and then we had to wait in a long line, so we ended up finding our seats a little after 11. However, as I soon learned, tennis matches can be very long.

The entire tournament was in the USTA (U.S. Tennis Association) Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which was huge. There were a lot of different stadiums and a lot of booths. We were in the main stadium called the Arthur Ashe Stadium. According to the USTA’s website, there are 22,771 seats. Here it is:

11986925_10205359024634845_1720474970761774769_nThe first match was Ana Ivanovic of Serbia vs. Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia. Cibulkova won overall, but the two players were quite evenly matched. They played really well.

The second match was Venus Williams (AHHH!) of the U.S. vs. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico.

11259586_10205359024594844_3457786966546002477_nIt was so cool to watch Venus Williams play! As someone who is terrible at tennis, I was amazed at the level of play between her and Monica Puig. She won the game in the first round of three sets, but it was still a very good game. I can’t believe I was able to watch tennis royalty like Venus Williams compete!

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It was such a great day and an incredible end to the summer! I am so thankful that I work at Special Olympics New York, where I’m able to have such amazing adventures!

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Countdown to the World Games: Day 2 and Day 1!

I realize this should have come out on Thursday, but I was traveling then! I’m in LA now, and it’s incredible to see how excited about the Games everyone is here. Even the people at the airport were wearing World Games pins on their lanyards. This is my last recount in the Countdown to the Games, and then I’ll start posting about what I’m doing in LA!

IMG_5245The Flame of Hope came to New York City this summer, and this was the most magical moment of my involvement at Special Olympics thus far. I’m sure tonight will be even more! The Torch Run leading up to the World Games started in Athens, and incredibly, that same flame was brought to New York for its portion of the Torch Run. After leaving the city, the flame has traveled throughout the United States, and on Saturday, the final leg of the Torch Run will carry the Flame of Hope into the Opening Ceremony, where I’ll get to see it in a few hours!

Before the Torch Run ran into Bryant Park, I was able to bond with Thomas, one of the World Games athletes, and Doug, his dad, by playing mini golf in the Special Olympics New York office. By the time we had to leave, the mini golf game had turned into an extreme obstacle course version. Even in a small mini golf game in the office, Thomas (the World Games athlete) and his dad (also a Special Olympics athlete) were being competitive athletes.

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Once we got to the park, we were greeted by friendly Bank of America volunteers. There was a tent with a photo booth where people could take pictures with signs. Doug and I took this picture and pledged to pass the flame for happiness. I’d say we look pretty happy!

Finally, the torchbearers ran the Flame of Hope into Bryant Park while everyone cheered. It was such a beautiful moment. I took photos from behind them just because that was the only free space, and it’s amazing to see all of the people filming, clapping, and supporting the torchbearers. My sister came with me, and she took the image from the front, which is equally powerful.

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IMG_5272After the excitement of the torchbearers, there were speeches. The most notable ones for me were Thomas’s and the CEO of Special Olympics International’s. You could tell that Thomas was nervous (who wouldn’t be?), but his speech was excellent. He thanked everyone and talked about how great Special Olympics has been for him. The CEO, Janet Froetscher, had a similar message in her speech. I was so starstruck by her because I have done school projects on her and Special Olympics. I was able to see her in real life!

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IMG_8574Later during the celebration, I was actually able to meet her. I was incredibly nervous, but there was no reason to be! She was extremely nice and even gave me her business card.

The next day, I was able to join Thomas for his portion of the Torch Run. He was with Deborah Norville of Inside Edition and a large group of Bank of America volunteers. For most of the time, we were just waiting around for Tara Lipinski and her group to pass the flame. Here are some photos of us waiting. I loved holding the torch!

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Next, Tara Lipinski came, passed the flame, and off they went! It was an incredible experience, and it’s crazy how fast it happened! I love how the World Games brings together everyone, just like the Torch Run did. Celebrities, staff, volunteers, fundraisers, coaches, camera crews, bystanders, and athletes are all able to share a part of the journey. It’s a true Unified experience!
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It’s less than four hours until the Opening Ceremony! I can’t wait! 🙂

Countdown to the World Games: Day 3

Only 2 more days until I go to LA to volunteer for the World Games! Yay! I’m so excited!

For Day 3 of my countdown/recounting of Special Olympics experiences, I chose the Metro Tournament. This occurred right after I started interning, and what a great way to start my internship!

The Metro Tournament took place at Queens College on Saturday, May 30. Over 700 New York City athletes competed in Track and Field, Volleyball, Powerlifting, Softball, and other sports with the help of about 300 volunteers.

Just like most New Yorkers, the day started for me with a very long subway ride. The campus was beautiful and big, and that is why it was so far into Queens. Once I made it to the college, I got lost in the excitement. Athletes from every New York City borough were arriving on buses, and Special Olympics New York staff members were trying to organize everyone. I helped one of my colleagues with the Law Enforcement Torch Run. We found three very talkative and charming athletes to accompany the law enforcement officers who would be running the Flame of Hope into the stadium to start off the competition.

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We met the law enforcement runners at TD Bank and prepared to go. They were led by motorcyclists and police cars. It was an incredible sight. When they arrived at the stadium, all of the athletes were ready for the Parade of Athletes. Each borough carried a sign down a tunnel made up of volunteers while we clapped, cheered, and gave high fives.

After that, it was time for the torch! It wasn’t lit because that would have been bad on such a windy day, but it still made me and everyone there so excited. It was the perfect image of what Special Olympics really is. The entire community got
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Valerie winning her second gold medal!

For most of the day, I followed a National Games gold medalist named Valerie around as she competed in Standing Long Jump and Running, and we were able to talk a lot. She was so nice and told me all about National Games and World Games (which was in Shanghai when she went). I felt very welcome with her and her family as they waited between events.

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Healthy Eyes

Once her events were over, I explored the Olympic Village. Volunteers were giving out lunches for all the athletes and other volunteers. There was a Special Olympics New York store, and most importantly, there was Healthy Athletes. Healthy Athletes is a program at Special Olympics competitions where medical volunteers examine athletes. There were four stations: Fit Feet, Healthy Hearing, Healthy Eyes, and Healthy Smiles. In each station, a medical examiner checked each athlete and explained about proper health.

IMG_5099Later, I was able to watch the Powerlifting, which was my favorite part of the whole day. It was incredible how much the athletes were able to lift, and I loved how most of the athletes had taken on a persona for powerlifting. My favorite was The Skullcrusher. Every time I would go to take a picture of him, he would whip out a rubber skull and actually crush it. Other notable names were The Gentle Giant and Mr. USA.

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The Skullcrusher

All in all, medals were won at the Metro Tournament, athletes were happy, their families were proud, and Special Olympics staff was tired. It’s crazy how much I learned about Special Olympics New York with this one event. It was an incredible way to start my internship, and I’m very thankful for it.

Here are some more photos from the day:

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From top to bottom: 2015 World Games athlete Thomas and his dad, Doug; Valerie competing in the Standing Long Jump; an athlete winning gold

Check in tomorrow for Day 2 of my countdown! 

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Countdown to the World Games: Day 4!

Syracuse, where 2015’s Winter State Games were held, is cold. However, my next experience with Special Olympics New York was even colder. On February 24, I ventured to the Special Olympics Showcase at Bryant Park. It was freezing, but I had the best time!IMG_4327

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Johnny Weir

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John Coughlin and Caydee Denney

In true Olympic spirit, Special Olympic and Olympic skaters teamed up to create an amazing showcase for ice skating fans. I was in awe of their talent and courage. I have a hard enough time moving forward on ice, but both the Special Olympic and Olympic athletes were doing so many crazy routines! It was an especially cool experience for me because many of the Special Olympics athletes had skated at the State Games, and I was able to see how much they had improved since then.

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A Special Olympics athlete who also competed at the State Games

The MCing of the event was also a collaboration between the Special Olympics and the Olympics. Johnny Weir, one of my favorite figure skaters and Olympians, and a very charismatic Special Olympics athlete announced each skater. In addition to the Special Olympics athletes, Ashley Wagner, John Coughlin and Caydee Denney, and Johnny Weir performed.

As someone with a very strong passion for the Olympic Movement, this was a gold medal event for me. It reminded me that even though it was winter and my classes were hard, this was the reason for everything I was doing, and it still is. Someday when I’m done with college, I will work to make events like this happen. Until then, I’ll keep volunteering, interning, blogging, and supporting all of the athletes of Team USA.

From top to bottom: Ashley Wagner, two Special Olympics athletes, and John Coughlin and Caydee Denney
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Check in tomorrow for Day 3 of my countdown to the World Games! 

Countdown to the World Games: Day 5

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Me with the Special Olympics   Flame of Hope

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.

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Parade of Athletes

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Figure Skating Awards

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!