Looking Back…

 

For the past two years, August has been a special month for me. Two years ago, I had just finished volunteering at the Los Angeles 2015 World Summer Games. One year ago, I was in Rio volunteering for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Both of those experiences are very important to me, and I have such wonderful memories for both of them. Before both of these experiences, I was very nervous. For LA, I was traveling somewhere by myself and volunteering at an international event for the first time, and for Rio, I was going to Brazil without knowing a lot of people or a lot of Portuguese. However, I loved each experience so much.

Thinking back to August 2016 and 2015, I thought a good blog post would feature my favorite picture from each one. I love photography, and there are some photos that really capture the spirit of the Games.

Here’s my favorite photo from LA 2015:

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LA 2015 was an eye-opening experience for me partly because it seemed like the whole world had come together to compete or to cheer for the athletes, but also because of moments like this. This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Those two athletes are from different countries, might not even have spoken the same language, and one of them won gold while the other won silver, but they are united in their celebration. They look so happy, proud, and triumphant. It makes me happy just to look at it.

For Rio 2016, it was a lot harder to choose, but I do love this one.

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This photo reminds me of the Closing Ceremony, one of my favorite moments of the Olympics. It was a symbol that I had achieved my dream of going to the Olympics. I had gone there and made the most of it. I was there at the Closing Ceremony! It felt like a really big party, and I think this photo captures that.

Thanks for reminiscing with me! Even though I’m sad that these events are over, the great thing about the Olympics and Special Olympics is that there will always be more moments like these in the future.

Trading Tuesday: Graduation

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My family and I outside of Madison Square Garden

Two weeks ago, I graduated from Pace University. It was a really fun day, and I was excited that my family could come to New York City to watch it. Thank you, Mom, Dad, Liz, Adri, and Derek for coming! It meant a lot to me. ❤

unnamedThese are the three pins I wore during graduation. They are some of my favorite pins out of my entire collection because they are symbols for the amazing experiences I’ve had at major sporting events. Every time I look at them, I remember all the people I met and all the things I was able to do, and I feel proud to have volunteered at the LA 2015 Special Olympics World Games, the Rio 2016 Olympics, and the Austria 2017 Special Olympics World Games during my college experience. Without volunteering at these Games (and getting these pins), I would not be where I am today. Those experiences were so valuable to me and helped teach me more about the world, myself, the Olympic Movement, and humanity. My experience at Pace and in New York City taught me how to push myself and make my dreams happen.

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You can see the pins proudly displayed on my Stole of Gratitude!

I wore these pins on a blue stole called a Stole of Gratitude. At the time, it seemed to be the only place where they could go and actually be seen, but now, it’s perfect that they were on that stole. I am so thankful for those experiences, and I have immense gratitude for all the opportunities I’ve had so far in my life and that I will have. I gave my Stole of Gratitude to my thesis and academic advisor, Bill. He really deserves it for helping me so much before, during, and after my time at Pace.

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Bill and I after the ceremony

Thank you, Pace, my family, the Honors College, and my friends for a wonderful college experience! Amazing Awaits!

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My cap

Trading Tuesday: Team Austria

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About month ago, I volunteered for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. It’s amazing how fast time has gone! Like every Special Olympics event I’ve ever been to, the best part was the athletes. I arrived in Austria on March 17, and I was feeling a little lonely. Once I got into my Airbnb, I decided to go for a walk, and I chose to walk to the Hauptplatz in Graz because that’s the main square. I was so excited to find that there was a huge dance party for the World Games at the Hauptplatz!

Special Olympic athletes love dancing, and I was able to dance with Team Austria, Team Spain, and Team Chinese Taipai that night. Everyone was dancing to a DJ who was playing a lot of popular music, and it was incredible. Many times throughout the night, all the dancers did the congo line. I felt really caught up in the music and the spirit of the Games. It was the best St. Patrick’s Day I’ve ever had!

After that Friday, I kept seeing many of the athletes, and the Austrian athletes made me feel very welcome. Every time I saw them, they waved, smiled, or gave me hugs even though I couldn’t really understand them since they spoke German, and they couldn’t really understand me since I spoke English.

One of the athletes from Austria gave me this pin (Österreich is Austria in German), and it was one of the first pins I received these Games. The Austrian athletes were wonderful hosts, and they were one of the best parts of my trip to Austria. I took this picture with them on the last day I volunteered. Most of them were stick shooters and had won gold!

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Thanks for reading! Happy Trading Tuesday!

An Interview with Eloise, a Special Olympics World Winter Games Figure Skater

Over the Special Olympics World Winter Games, I had the amazing privilege to meet so many incredible people from around the world. To get to the Opening Ceremony, for example, I got one of the last seats on the South African delegation’s bus. This was such a cool experience because I became friends with many of the players and the head of the delegation. In addition, I met Sue and David Carruthers, the parents of Eloise, who competed in Figure Skating for Team GB.

Throughout the week, I ran into Team South Africa and the Caruthers a few times, and I’m very glad I did. Both groups really contributed to how much I enjoyed the Games. On March 21, I interviewed Eloise for my blog, which was really cool because she is one of the best female figure skaters in Level 4 skating in the world.

Here’s the video. Please excuse the poor sound quality. It was hard to find a quiet place at the rink!

The video ends with Eloise’s free skate, which I just made it to see on Thursday! She won seventh place, and her skating was absolutely beautiful.

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It was really fun to meet and cheer for Eloise at the World Games! 😀

My Experience at the Austria 2017 World Winter Games

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With the mascots!

One week ago today, the Closing Ceremony for the Austria 2017 World Winter Games happened, and although it’s sad that the Games are over, I had such an amazing time that I can only feel grateful. The people who live in Graz welcomed all of the athletes, volunteers, families, and coaches and made the World Games into a special experience.

My last day volunteering was March 23, and it was one of the best days of my life. I volunteered for the Motor Activity Training Program (MATP). I ran the soccer station, and it was really fun to see the athletes get recognized and cheered for by Unified cheerleaders, their caretakers, and their Unified partners. It was awesome to see all of them up on stage receiving medals and smiling so wide! Later that night, I just made it to watch Eloise, a British figure skater whose parents I had become friends with on the bus to the Opening Ceremony, compete in her free skate and win seventh in the world in Level 4 Figure Skating! After watching Figure Skating for a long time, I went to a special party held to thank volunteers and tried a lot of Austrian desserts with people who had also been volunteering at MATP. That day, my heart felt so full of love and happiness. There’s no other place in the world where you are able to meet people from so many different countries and cultures and become friends with them.

At the 1987 World Games, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, said, “You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.” That definitely happened at this World Games where 2,700 athletes from 107 countries competed. Medals were won, friendships were made, and the world was changed. We, the volunteers, spectators, families, Special Olympics staff, and the people of Graz made these Games special for the athletes. They truly were the stars of the Games.

Some of the best moments of the Games for me were:

  • Meeting athletes from around the world and cheering them on, especially those from Team USA, Team Canada, Team Great Britain, Team Austria, and Team South Africa!
  • Becoming an honorary member of Team South Africa and getting to eat lunch with them and seeing them compete!
  • Becoming friends with fans and volunteers from around the world!
  • Meeting Tim Shriver, the Chairman of Special Olympics and Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s son.
  • Meeting Mary Davis, the CEO of Special Olympics International, again (she gave a presentation at Pace University last year!).
  • Experiencing the culture of Graz.
  • Getting to see some of the people I had met at previous volunteer experiences/internships again.
  • Dancing with Team Austria on the first night I got to Graz and doing the conga line with them!
  • The award ceremony for the Motor Activity Training Program (MATP). The athletes were so happy to get medals, and they loved the applause!

Here’s a video summarizing my trip!

An Interview with Team USA’s Unified Floor Hockey Coach

The Special Olympics World Winter Games start a week from today, so to start getting everyone excited to cheer on Team USA, I interviewed David Durandisse, the coach of the Unified Floor Hockey team from New York City that will compete in the Games.

The Olympics of Blogs: What are you most excited for about Austria?

David: I’m excited to be visiting Europe and being a part of this huge event. I remember our first practice and now that we are this close to departure, I’m excited to see all the work come together and pay off.

The Olympics of Blogs: How were you chosen to coach the team?

David: I was offered the opportunity to join the team and I accepted.

The Olympics of Blogs: How long has your team been training for the World Games?

David: We have been practicing since September, so about 6 months.

The Olympics of Blogs: How has your team been practicing to prepare for the World Games?

David: We have been conditioning to get their stamina up; live scrimmages to get a feel for the game against opponents. We have done a bunch of drills and live game scenarios to map out what we want to do in games.

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The Olympics of Blogs: Will you and your team walk in the Opening Ceremony for Team USA?

David: We will be walking in Opening Ceremonies.

The Olympics of Blogs: Do you think they’ll win gold?

David: I believe we have the players to win gold. We have a combination of size and speed that should work to our advantage to create scoring opportunities. I believe if we can put that together we will surely win gold.

The Olympics of Blogs: After coaching a Unified team, what do you think about Unified sports?

David: Unified sports is a great concept. I have seen two sides come together as one. Individuals who may have not had a chance to come together, now have that opportunity through unified sports. They have created friendships that will last a lifetime.

The Olympics of Blogs: What has been your favorite moment as a coach for Unified Floor Hockey?

David: Hanging out with the team and bonding with the coaches. We all started this journey months ago, and along the way we have shared many laughs on and off the court.

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You can watch Team USA’s Unified Floor Hockey team walk in the Opening Ceremony on ABC on March 18 from 2-5 pm ET!

The Austria 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games

2017WorldGamesAustrialogoStarting with the Opening Ceremony on March 18, the Special Olympics World Winter Games will be held in Graz, Austria! The Flame of Hope has already been lit and has started traveling on its way to Austria. The sports of these Games will be Figure Skating, Speed Skating, Floor Hockey, Floorball, Snowshoeing, Alpine Skiing, Nordic Skiing, Snowboarding, and Stick Shooting. Special Olympics New York City’s Unified Floor Hockey team and two of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s speed skaters will be competing!

ESPN will be airing live coverage of the Games. Here is the schedule. I’ll be volunteering at the Games and will be at the Opening Ceremony, so make sure to look for me!

Saturday, March 18, 2-5 pm EST, ABC – Live: Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017 Opening Ceremony

Sunday, March 19, 2-3 pm EST, ABC – Coverage of the Games

Monday, March 20, 6-6:30 pm EST, ESPN2 – Coverage of the Games

Tuesday, March 21, 6-7 pm EST, ESPN2 – Coverage of the Games

Wednesday, March 22, 6-7 pm ESt, ESPN2 – Coverage of the Games

Thursday, March 23, 6-7 pm EST, ESPN2 – Coverage of the Games

Friday, March 24, 6-7 pm EST, ESPN2 – Coverage of the Games

Sunday, March 26, 2-3 pm EST, ABC – Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017 – Best of the Games

My Special Olympics Anniversary

Yesterday was my one year anniversary for volunteering with Special Olympics. On February 6, 2015, I began my Special Olympics journey at the 2015 Winter State Games in Syracuse. On that day, I helped put up arenas for Floor Hockey and watched my first ever Opening Ceremony. It has been a really special year since then, and it’s all because of Special Olympics.

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At the Empire State Building to welcome the World Games athletes home

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I’m so happy that I’m a part of the Special Olympics family, a family of truly inspiring individuals who love the Olympic Movement just as much as I do. From the employees at Special Olympics New York to the athletes to the volunteers in New York and LA, Special Olympics constantly reminds me that the world is full of good people. It pushes me to want to be a better person, and it makes me happy to see the athletes compete and succeed over hurdles in sports and in the world.

IMG_7360One of my favorite Special Olympics memories from the past year happened at a Basketball Skills competition. One of the athletes, the self-proclaimed Gold Medal Ted, asked my supervisor and I if he could sing, and it was decided that he could sing during the Closing Ceremony. After the medals were awarded to the athletes, it was time for the Closing Ceremony to begin.

Ted stood in front of the microphone, and first, he thanked everyone for coming. Then, he explained to all of the volunteers and the athletes that he was going to sing “What a Wonderful World” for them and also for his mom who was in Heaven. He began singing, and it was an unexplainably beautiful moment. The gym, which had been filled with the sound of basketballs pounding on the floor just moments before, was so quiet as everyone listened to his beautiful, emotion-filled voice. Although Ted didn’t actually win a gold medal in Basketball Skills, he won a gold medal in our hearts by living according to the Special Olympics’ Athlete Oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

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Athletes like Ted make me so happy that I have had the opportunity to work and volunteer for Special Olympics. It’s an organization I believe in, and although I don’t know what I will do after I graduate, I know that I will always support Special Olympics. Here’s to another year!

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My Interview with Greg Louganis

12179421_10205593663180662_723909234_n-1On Sunday, October 25, I traveled to the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea to see NewFest’s premiere of the HBO documentary, Back on Board: Greg Louganis. Greg Louganis is one of my favorite Olympic athletes because of his true commitment to the values of the Olympic Movement. He is actually one of the reasons why I began diving.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but here’s a short bio of his experience with the Olympic Movement. According to his website, he “is widely considered the greatest diver in history,” and because he won a silver medal in the 1976 Games, two gold medals (on 3 meter and 10 meter) at the 1984 Games, and two gold medals (on 3 meter and 10 meter) at the 1988 Games, I would agree. Most people remember his bravery after he hit his head on the board, continued diving within the hour, and won gold at the 1988 Games.

After the 1988 Games, he retired, and then in 1995, he and Eric Marcus wrote his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, where he came out as gay and HIV+. Back on Board is about his experiences while he was competing, at the Seoul Games, after he came out, his advocacy, and his current work as a mentor for USA Diving.

Incredibly, I was able to meet and interview him on the documentary, preparing for the Rio Olympics, and many other things. Below is the interview. You can watch the documentary on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

The Olympics of Blogs: What do you hope people walk away with from your film?

imagesGreg: Well, you know, it’s interesting because I’m just the subject matter, and it’s the director, Cheryl Furjanic, and [producer/writer] Will Sweeney who really chose what to focus on, how to tell the story, and what story to tell. We were together for three and a half years in the process, so they really had a lot to choose from. They focused on the diving and my entry back into the sport of diving. There’s some current day stuff mixed in there as far as challenges I’ve been through and so, I think what I found people take away from it most is that no matter how much you achieve, we’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all make good decisions and bad decisions because we’re human. That’s what people come away with. It’s the humanity.

It was interesting because it’s been focused on the LGBT film festival, but I’ve been getting responses from [many people]. One, which is very meaningful, was from a straight black woman, and she wrote that after viewing the documentary, she found the courage to come out to her friends and loved ones about her HIV status. She has two daughters who I’m assuming are HIV-.

And [the audience will come away from it with] how challenging it is in various communities – you know, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and the stigma of being LGBT. You know, all of those things. We’ve come a long way, and the advances in treatments since I was diagnosed in ’88 are wonderful. That I’m still here is truly amazing because when I was diagnosed in ’88, I didn’t think I’d see 30. Everyone was dying.

Even when I saw the film for the first time, I learned a lot because in a part of the film, I said that, “An atomic bomb could have gone off, and I never would have known.” That’s how focused I was on being successful in my sport and doing my homework, getting ready, preparation, and all that. I heard about AIDS, and that was kind of out there. I had friends who were dying, and it really brought home the gravity of what was happening at that time. I find that people are coming away [from this film] with its persistence and tenacity of hanging in there and believing things will work out.

The Olympics of Blogs: What are some of the differences between writing a book and being involved in this film?

Greg: Well, I worked with my coauthor, Eric Marcus. We started back in ’93, and that was a whole process. I knew that I wanted to share my story, and the only way I felt that I could do it justice was through a book. Eric is incredibly thorough, and working on it was very cathartic. But at the same time, there were points in the process of our working together where I wasn’t ready emotionally to deal with it. He really forced me to revisit and examine areas of my life where I just really didn’t want to go.

Eventually, I got there, and I think that was what was so telling. It was a New York Times bestseller for five weeks because it was so revealing and raw. I thought that I was sharing my weaknesses, but on book tour, I realized by sharing my weaknesses, I was actually sharing my strength. That’s kind of how I perceived this process of doing a documentary when I was approached by Cheryl Furjanic and Will Sweeney. I felt confident that I was in good hands, and my story would be treated with love and respect.

The Olympics of Blogs: How did it feel to go back to diving after such a long time?

Greg: It was nice. I like the capacity that I came back in as athlete mentor. That’s been so meaningful. I feel impactful.

We are going to be in a tough spot in Rio. The state of diving right now globally is the entire world is chasing China. Mexico has poured millions and millions of dollars into their diving program, and it’s showing. They’re really coming onto the scene strong. Canada has a wonderful program. They know that they can’t support all of the elite athletes, so they pick and choose the athletes they feel have the best shot at success. Then they pour their resources into those athletes. It’s a very different model from what USA Diving is using. They [USA Diving] disbanded the National Training Center, which I feel is a huge mistake. I’d really like to see much more coaches’ collaboration and more of a sense of a U.S. team. I love what Canada does with their One Team campaign.

Right now in the states, it’s a little bit more about this club against that club against that club. If they [the club] have a talent, their tendency is to hold onto that talent to gain recognition. It really should be a collaborative effort in order to be successful. We have some tremendous talent, but we need to share resources, especially since many of the facilities are limited. There’s not that many full on dive facilities around the country. They are few and far between. To share resources, to share knowledge, and to share experiences is the only way we’re going to be successful.

The Olympics of Blogs: How will the U.S. men’s 10 meter platform diving be in Rio?*

Greg: David Boudia is still continuing. He gets it, which is exciting for me to see. They teamed him up. His synchro partner is Steele Johnson, who is a young kid, and he can mentor Steele through the process. Also, being teamed with a diver who is better than you elevates your performance. You rise to the occasion. I think that is very powerful and impactful.

*Greg won gold for the 10 meter platforming diving at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. In 2012, U.S. diver David Boudia won gold. I’m also going to see this event in Rio, so it was interesting to see what Greg thought about it.

The Olympics of Blogs: How did it feel to carry the Special Olympics flag in the World Games’ Opening Ceremony?

Greg: It was great. It was a great honor to be with all those guys. I had a lot of fun.

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Carrying the flag

Pins (And Their Place in the Olympic Movement)

In my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, they have frames filled with pins right above the computer. For a long time when I was growing up, I had no idea what they were for. However, it all clicked one day, and I realized that these were the pins my family had collected when we went to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

I was one at the time, so I don’t remember it, but my sister says it was really awesome. She told me that her pins were coveted because my mom had gotten Kodak pins that no one else had. Although I missed out on the pin-collecting fun at the Atlanta Games, I was able to experience my own pin-collecting fun this summer at the Special Olympics World Games.

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He was right outside of the LA Memorial Coliseum after the Opening Ceremony and would only trade for pins. People kept trying to buy them, but he kept refusing.

Amy, my supervisor at Special Olympics New York, gave me Special Olympics New York pins before I left. I’m so grateful that she did because I was able to trade those for really cool pins. Mine were highly desired because not many people there were from New York. From my experience, trading pins was a way to open up conversation and connect with people from anywhere. The pins bridged the gap between cultures and languages. Most of the delegations had pins from their countries with them, and it was a good way to approach a team and get to know them. Special Olympics athletes are so kind that usually they tried to give me their pins instead of trading. I always had to make sure that they also got pins from me.

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One of the coolest pin tradings happened on my last night as a volunteer. I was already done with my shift, and I was saying goodbye to everything at UCLA’s Wilson Plaza with my friend I had made during the Games. A man and a woman approached me and asked if I wanted to trade with them. They ended up trading me pins from the Atlanta 1996 Olympics! I traded some of my pins for an Atlanta Olympic pin, Paralympic pin, and a Diving pin. As I was talking with them, they told me they were Olympic historians, and they had been to 18 Olympics in total. They had actually just returned from the Pan Am Games, which happened in Toronto this summer. I got some advice from them about Rio, and I said I would see them there!

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Pins from the Fan Zone. We were giving them out for free- no trading necessary!

After I came back from the World Games, I wasn’t sure of what I should do with my pins. I definitely wanted to display them, so I could see them every day just like I could in my parents’ house. Eventually, I decided to arrange them on a bulletin board with my favorite photos from the Games. I just finished it this past week, and here’s the finished product:

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Thanks for reading! Please follow me for more updates on my Olympic journey!