Highlights from the Special Olympics World Games

Here are my top 5 favorite highlights from my experience at the World Games:

1. Being inspired by the athletes’ sportsmanship. The Special Olympics athletes at the World Games embodied everything I love about the Olympic Movement. Even though all of the athletes wanted to win gold, they still respected each other in the competition and outside of it. I saw the best example of athlete sportsmanship during the Award Ceremony for Artistic Gymnastics. One division of athletes contained two athletes, and at first, it was just a normal ceremony. The two athletes received their medals, and everyone watching cheered. Next though, one athlete took the hand of the other, and they raised up their hands together. It was so spontaneous and really spoke to the best parts of the human spirit. Even though one had won gold and the other silver and they were from different countries, they were still able to unite together in their accomplishments.

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Meeting up with the two Thomases from NYC

2. Being able to see the two competing athletes from Special Olympics New York City. During my time in LA, I was able to meet up with four athletes from Special Olympics New York. Two were competing in the World Games, one was the parent of one of the World Games athletes (and an athlete himself), and one was an athlete volunteer who didn’t make it to this World Games and decided to volunteer instead. It was amazing to find the Special Olympics New York family as far away as California.

I was able to cheer on Thomas, one of the NYC athletes, in his 4 by 100 relay. It was so exciting to watch him do what he excels at and loves to do. I joined the athlete volunteer from New York, all of Team USA, and his dad in cheering for Thomas and his team. In the end, they won a bronze medal in that relay! As for the other NYC athlete (also named Thomas), I just missed seeing him compete in Artistic Gymnastics, but luckily, I was still able to meet up with him afterward and see how he was doing. His coach let me come into the gymnastics practice room, and I was able to see Thomas with all of his teammates. He was having so much fun! In the end, Thomas won two silver medals and two bronze medals.

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IMG_9237 watermark3. Befriending my fellow volunteers. During the Games, I volunteered at UCLA’s Wilson Plaza in the Fan Zone. This meant that we helped to check in the team captains of large groups of Fans in the Stands. It was incredible how many people volunteered to cheer on the athletes. For a few sports, such as Artistic Gymnastics and Judo, the venues were completely full with Fans in the Stands. This in itself is amazing because most of the athletes’ families, friends, and other fans couldn’t come due to the distance. I also passed out “I’m a fan” pins and took photos of people in front of the Circle of Inclusion (as shown in the photo of some Fan Zone volunteers and me).

I was surprised by how quickly I became friends with all of the volunteers working in the Fan Zone. They were so friendly and answered every question an East Coaster had about the West Coast, which I really appreciated. I am so grateful that I was placed with such nice people. I hope they come to NYC to visit!
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4. Meeting so many new people. Everyone at the World Games was so unbelievably friendly. People actually said “Good morning” and walked around with smiles on their faces. In part, I believe it was the California weather affecting people’s moods. However, I also believe that everyone recognized how amazing this experience was, and no one wanted to ruin it.

I was able to meet people from all over the world! I even volunteered with a lady from India. In the past, she had gone to many World Games as the Head Coach of the Indian delegation, but this year, Special Olympics India told her to relax a little and only be a volunteer.

Here are some photos of people I met:

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Here is an athlete’s LA 2015 inspired hairdo. You can see the Reach Up LA logo. So cool!

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Here I am with an athlete from Venezuela. He came and introduced himself to all of the Fan Zone volunteers.

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Here is a photo with me and some of the Special Olympics Unified cheerleaders. They came from all over the country to cheer on the athletes.

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She won gold in horseback riding!

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Here’s a really sweet pug and his owner! His name is Zeus!

5. Traveling around LA. I love traveling to new places and having new adventures. Before going to LA for the World Games, Indiana was the farthest west I had ever been. Now that I’ve been all of the way to California, I can’t wait to go back! In a quick recap, I went to Malibu (and swam in the Pacific Ocean!), Santa Monica, Venice Beach (and saw Muscle Beach and the canals), the lights at LACMA, the Tar Pit, the handprints and stars in Hollywood (and put my hands in Daniel Radcliffe’s!), the LA Memorial Coliseum, a UCB show, the Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood Bowl.

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This experience was absolutely amazing, and I can’t believe that it was almost a month ago. Volunteering at the Special Olympics World Games changed my life by showing me how big the world really is, how much more I want to do and see, how much I love helping and interacting with people, and how inspiring the human spirit can be. I’m excited to have more experiences like this, both with Special Olympics and elsewhere.

A Night to Remember: The LA 2015 Opening Ceremony

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Me at the Opening Ceremony

It’s crazy how fast time goes! On July 25, about 2 weeks ago, I went to the LA 2015 Opening Ceremony. That ceremony was so inspiring, and it really solidified my passion for the Olympic Movement.

The day started off with a trip to the Griffith Observatory, a really cool place to sightsee and to learn about science. Outside, there are amazing views, and I could see the Hollywood sign! Inside, there is a Tesla coil, planetarium, telescope, and sun analyzer. It was a really amazing way to start off my trip!

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Me outside of the Griffith Observatory

After that, I left for the Opening Ceremony. Before coming to LA, I didn’t expect the Metro to be as spread out as it was. Thankfully, I was staying near the Red Line, but my trips always ended up being an hour or longer. It was very obvious that people in LA usually drive everywhere. Along the way, I met a very chatty and nice woman who was also going to the Opening Ceremony. She was a proud parent of an athlete and showed me a shirt with his team’s photo on it. I also met someone who I stayed with for most of the time before the Ceremony. She was a local of California and was volunteering too! We got in line together with people from Special Olympics New York I knew, and the the waiting began. I was so excited for the ceremony and the entire week!

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Team New York

President Obama began the Opening Ceremony via video because he was in Kenya. After that, a few celebrities and athletes spoke, and then, it was the Parade of Athletes! I loved everyone’s outfits. Some were in standard Opening Ceremony uniforms while others dressed in traditional clothes from their countries.

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Look at the lady right next to the gray tarp. She’s in the center of the frame.

Cheering for 165 countries can become very tiring, but the fans never quit. Even though the United States was the host country (and thus had the most fans), we cheered as hard as we could for every country in order to celebrate how amazing all of the athletes were. The woman with the flag in the photograph to the left was one of the best fans I saw. She was so loud and so excited that it made everyone loud and excited! When Team USA came onto the field, the crowd went wild. Everyone in the stadium started chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and screaming.

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Team USA!

Once the Parade of Athletes ended, Timothy Shriver (Chairman of the Special Olympics and the son of the founder of Special Olympics), Maria Shriver (a famous journalist and the daughter of the founder of Special Olympics), and some Special Olympics Global Messengers gave speeches.

Here is everyone reciting the Athlete’s Oath. It goes, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” This forms the basic foundation for all of Special Olympics.

Later in the night, four Olympic athletes and four Special Olympic athletes carried the Special Olympics flag onto the stage and hoisted it up the pole. That was a very special moment for me because I love the Olympics so much, and I loved seeing athletes from the Olympics and the Special Olympics working together. Michael Phelps, Greg Louganis, Michelle Kwan, and Nadia Comaneci were able to join the Special Olympic athletes in their Ceremony, and they were so happy to be there.

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My favorite speech of the night was Tim’s. Tim is a Special Olympics athlete and the founder of Tim’s Place, a restaurant that serves all meals with a hug! He told everyone that dreams do come true because his dream to own a restaurant did! He introduced Michelle Obama onto the stage, and she declared the Games to be open.

The end of the Torch Run from Athens to LA came next. After seeing the World Games celebration in Bryant Park that was toward the beginning of the Torch Run, it was amazing to see the end. Avril Lavigne sang “Fly,” her song that was written just for Special Olympics, and Special Olympic athletes and Law Enforcement officers used the Flame of Hope to light the Olympic Cauldron for the first time since 1984. Fireworks erupted around the stadium, and everyone cheered in unity. The Games were now open! The whole thing made me cry because it was so beautiful.

The Opening Ceremony was one of the best experiences of my entire life, and I am so grateful to have been a part of it. This is just the beginning of my recount of LA. In the next few days, look out for my next posts about volunteering!

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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!