In 2002, the Olympic torch rolled through Syracuse on its way to the Salt Lake City winter games. One of the sillier moments of that officious day came when Stephen Baldwin trotted the torch into the OnCenter and handed it to his mom, Carol, who used it to ignite a mini-cauldron. Silly because of Stephen, not Carol. There the torch spent the night before heading West.
While the Special Olympics won’t garner such a People magazine moment, they are no less momentous to the athletes, their families and coaches, and the fans who come to watch. Special Olympics New York’s winter games invade the area Friday, Feb. 5, and Saturday, Feb. 6, bringing nearly 500 athletes to compete in six events. Seventy-four of those athletes are from the Syracuse area.
Bridget Bailey gets into position with help from her dad, Rick.
Coach Bonnie Brown looks over the hockey players.
The Special Olympics are more than a sporting event, however. The athletes look forward to the friendly competition. The old cliché that it’s more about how you play the game than if you win or lose rings true here. In fact, it’s memorialized in the Special Olympians’ oath. “What really speaks to me is the oath,” says Kayla McKeon, 22. “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. So it doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s how you feel afterward.” That sense of accomplishment runs deep in these athletes who, until Eunice Kennedy Shriver recognized the need, weren’t expected to do much of anything. Nearly 50 years ago Shriver, who died last year, founded the Special Olympics so those who are differently abled could explore their capabilities in sports and physical activities. Today, Special Olympics serves 2 million people worldwide.
The first International Special Olympics summer games were held July 19 and 20, 1968, in Chicago. Dorothy Buehring Phillips brought the Special Olympics to New York state in 1969, and the first state games were held in Rochester in June 1970. Today, Special Olympics New York is the largest program of its kind in North America, with more than 47,000 athletes. Syracuse is home to a regional office of the Schenectady-based organization.
The winter games return to Syracuse this year and next, and athletes will be competing in speed- and figure skating, floor hockey, Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, according to Sean Coakley, director of programs for the Central Region.
Although volunteer slots are filled, you can still help out. “The community has been fantastic about responding to the request for volunteers,” he says. “The spots have been filled as far as needing people to help out at venues. But we’re always in need of volunteers to be fans in the stands and to encourage the athletes and let them know that the local community is out to support them. If you want to volunteer, just walk in the day of the event, and we’ll put you in the stands.”
And that’s where the athletes would like you to be. “We want everyone to be a fan,” says McKeon, “to cheer for us.”
Special Olympics administrators Sean Coakley and Laurie Kennedy peruse logistics.
Members of the floor hockey team get in some last-minute practice.
Laurie Kennedy got started with the Special Olympics 20 years ago as a figure skating instructor. Now she is the regional director, based in Rochester and overseeing three upstate New York regions. “I have watched so many of these athletes grow up and mature through Special Olympics,” she says, “which is wonderful because it means that Special Olympics is very important to them. It has become a significant part of their life and their family’s.”
Indeed, many of the parents of the athletes also help out as coaches, such as Bonnie Brown. She got her niece Raymell Temaungil, 31, involved 10 years ago. “I was looking to get her into activities to help her disability,” Brown says, “and somebody told me about a league, but it only goes up to age 21. I was looking for a more long-term activity to keep her physically active. Once they get out of high school they’re kind of forgotten.”
John Maestri’s 29-year-old daughter Lisa is a goalie on the floor hockey team, and he has helped coach in the 18 years she has been involved. He’s heartened by the athletes’ progress. “To see the kids advance and develop, it’s simply amazing what they can do,” he says. “It’s good for the kids, who can start out when they’re 8, and I’ve watched them grow for the last 18 years or so.” But even more than the competition, these athletes look forward to reconnecting with old acquaintances. An evening spent interviewing a handful of athletes who were practicing floor hockey at the old St. Patrick’s School on Lowell Avenue revealed a common theme: They all enjoy the tri-annual games because they can see their friends; it seems more of a draw than competing. “I just love being with my friends,” says McKeon, one of our cover models. “That’s a big thing to socialize while doing all these cool events.” For Temaungil, our other cover model, it’s also about reconnecting the three times a year Special Olympics is held. “I get to see my friends that I don’t get to see all the time,” she notes. “They’re from other places.”
Gabriella Iannotti, 14, echoes that. “I enjoy being with my friends but also getting to make new friends,” says the Gillette Road Middle School student.
So the camaraderie is a decided draw, but so is the chance to get away from their hometown. “One summer games, we went to Hofstra,” says Lisa Maestri. “I had fun there. It was a different part of the state. The outside things were nice—the Olympic Village and stuff. I see different stuff every time I go places. I enjoy going away. It’s like a weekend away from home. That’s one of my favorites,” she says with a laugh.
Western Region skater Wesley Demarino soaks up his triumph.
Nicole Clapper wows the figure skating faithful at Allyn Arena in Skaneateles.
Iannotti, too, enjoyed her time away when she competed in Rochester. She has played hockey, soccer and bocce since she was 8, then the youngest the Special Olympians could start. Now there’s a group for 5-year-olds, says her mom, Cheri Iannotti. There is no upper age limit on Special Olympians; in fact, 75 percent of the athletes are older than 21. “I stayed in a hotel without my mom,” she says with a smile. “I like to play the games, but I like the dancing after it’s all over. And I like my coaches. They make it a lot of fun.”
Fun aside, these are the Olympics, and the athletes really want to win. “I love the competition,” says McKeon, whose parents Mark and Patti coach Special Olympians. “When I was in high school, I couldn’t keep up with other kids because they were always so fast. In Special Olympics, even though others are fast, we are all on the same level. So here I can keep up, more, physically.”
As one of the oldest competitors out there, Temaungil takes a more laid-back approach to competing. “If I win, I win,” she says. “I just go to have fun.”
Temaungil’s story is an interesting one. Although she was born in Oklahoma, her mother relocated the family to Palau, where Raymell lived from the time she was 8 until she turned 15. “Her mother is my sister,” says Brown, who is the director of aquatics for the city of Syracuse. “The opportunities were not there for her education, so she came here for middle and high school, and she stayed because there are more opportunities for work and recreation here than there. The snow was new to Raymell, so I was surprised when she said she wanted to try snowshoeing and skiing.”
Still, swimming remains her favorite, and in the summer she’ll compete in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke. “I like swimming because you use all your muscles,” she says. And swimming downplays Temaungil’s limited motion on her left side.
Brown has witnessed the difference Special Olympics has made in her niece’s life. “She has really blossomed both as an athlete and personality-wise,” Brown says. “It’s where their friends are. She’s more outgoing, more physically capable despite her difficulties. When she first came, it was harder for her to get dressed and get moving. Now she’s just more capable.”
In fact, Temaungil works a part-time job, helping out at Seasons of the Café, a new restaurant in East Syracuse. She proudly announces that she’s worked there since May 26, 2009.
But even more than the athletic accomplishments, the Special Olympics strive to impart life skills to their clients. “We want this population to use Special Olympics as a catalyst for their growth as human beings,” says Susan MacBryde, who works in development for the organization. “To enhance their self-esteem, their self-confidence, their feeling of status in the world. And the easiest way to do that is through sports.”
The Special Olympics holds three competitions annually: winter, summer and fall. The locations of each rotate biennially, so Syracuse has the winter games this year and in 2011; Utica will hold the next two summer games. Like the original Olympic games, summer sees the most sports, and also the most athletes.
For this weekend’s competition, spectators can watch athletes skate at the Onondaga County War Memorial, 515 Montgomery St.; floor hockey at the OnCenter, 800 State St.; Alpine skiing at Toggenburg Mountain in Fabius; Nordic skiing at Highland Forest, also in Fabius; and snowshoeing at Thornden Park, Ostrom Avenue.
The Olympic Village will be set up for the duration of the games at the OnCenter. “It’s a gathering point for athletes when they’re between competitions, or after their games,” says Coakley. Merchandise is available for purchase and one of the Special Olympics’ initiatives, Healthy Athletes, will be in the house.
“Healthy Athletes is something we try to push,” says Coakley. “We let athletes know what needs to be done so they can be truly healthy, through nutrition and exercise.” Healthy Athletes became an official Special Olympics project in 1997. The health-care services provided include free vision, hearing and dental screening, injury prevention clinics and nutrition education.
But first comes the opening ceremony, a pageant, celebration and parade, all rolled into one inspiring evening. It gets under way at 7 p.m. at the OnCenter, and everyone is welcome to, well, welcome the athletes to Syracuse. After the regional delegations march in, there will be guest speakers and entertainment.
A nice touch will be local high school and college athletic teams, who have been invited to help escort the Special Olympians. They represent Syracuse University, Le Moyne and Cazenovia colleges, Onondaga Community College and SUNY Morrisville. Members of the Assault City Roller Derby will be on hand, along with scouting groups.
“Our student base of volunteers is very large and very appreciated,” MacBryde notes. “We contact the schools early in the process so we can schedule students at the venues. They come in uniform as their sports teams and form a line that is the periphery of what becomes the parade of athletes. All our athletes march into the OnCenter by delegation, led by the Knights of Columbus, who are in full regalia, and the athletes will pass by all these student groups. The athletes love having them there.”
But there is another, less overt, reason to invite young adults to help out Special Olympians. “One thing that’s very important to the Special Olympics is that we work with area youth to enhance their understanding of the intellectually disabled population,” MacBryde says. “It is these leaders of tomorrow who will be able to effect change for this population. Part of our mission is to engender understanding of this population.”
There isn’t a closing ceremony, per se, Coakley notes, but rather an acknowledgement at each venue. “So as the event wraps up, they’ll do a closing ceremony and an awards presentation at each event.”
Special Olympics events are free for both athletes and spectators. “As a nonprofit organization, we pride ourselves on not charging a fee to any of the athletes,” Coakley says. “Our development staff works hard at raising money to do this. Local sponsorships and corporations help out.”
Adds Kennedy: “In this economic climate, we’ve been proactive, gone to other avenues for raising funds and not depending on lots of grants. We do quite a bit of pledge-based fund-raising.”
But for this weekend, set aside the necessary but mundane world of money and take in the friendships, the athletes and the competition. “I just love being with my friends,” McKeon says. “That’s a big thing, to socialize while doing all these cool events. The Special Olympics is my life. With the state games here, I’ll be competing in floor hockey. Hopefully, we will bring home the gold.”
Special Olympics competitions begin Saturday, Feb. 6, at 8:30 a.m. A detailed competition schedule is available at www.specialolympicsny.org. For more information, call 479-2933.
Lead photo at top of story: Kayla McKeon and Raymell Temaungil hold some winter games gear.