Great news! You can announce your title as Half Marathon Sports Commissioner for the World Games.”
Thus began a new chapter, another adventure, one which involved the Special Olympics for my first time. A lot of my friends cheered me with congratulations bringing promise of a rewarding experience to come. Oh my goodness, what an inspirational and fulfilling experience it has been working with Special Olympians.
In what became the largest event in town since the LA 1984 Olympic Games, the Special Olympics of 2015 spanned nine days, hosting 177 countries, consisting of 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches in 25 sports. Athletes were housed in 100 “host towns” across the Southland. It took 30,000 volunteers to cover events at 27 different venues with 500,000 spectators cheering the athletes on. At the site of both the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games in the LA Coliseum, the opening ceremonies lit up the skies. LA Times writer Bill Plaschke described it as “Out of this World,” and indeed it was a magical night! Or, as one young athlete Plaschke quoted stated it, “This is the most amazing place, a place we don’t always find in the rest of our world. This is a place where we are all equal.” (I am tearing up. Again.)
In the hours preceding the ceremonies, before being seated in the Coliseum, my friends and I busied ourselves at a reception reuniting with friends and colleagues in our familiar world of coaching and sports foundations, as well as making new acquaintances including more than a few celebrities.
Once seated inside, awaiting ceremonies, I could hardly contain myself before joining the team I was assigned to — which turned out to be Germany. What a great group of athletes! They were so full of cheer and excitement, and befriended me instantly. However, I admit I was a little worried about the language barrier until one bilingual and willing athlete volunteered to translate for us. For an instant, I was flashing back to the days when my first international running competition took me to Waldniel, Germany. I remembered Christa Vahlensieck, who became my friend and strongest competition in those years, as we traded records back and forth. We communicated as if in a game of Charades. I was grateful to be marching this night with an interpreter. We were snapping scores of pictures of each other (I had one giggle moment when I saw the selfie-sticks came out . . . )
Marching into the stadium, among a sea of red uniforms, I was a speck of all-white-uniform on the floor of the Coliseum which made it easy to spot me for my friends, Jeaney Garcia and Bill Leung, after all. Jeaney, a natural born cheerleader, was also easy to spot doing jumping jacks in the grandstands. The German team – and I – were singing and cheering at the top of our lungs all the way into the tunnels of the stadium where the sound reverberated. Once every team was seated, the star-studded performances followed one another all night long. Inspirational speeches were delivered by celebrities, sponsors, SO Officials and from the keepers-of -the-flame since Eunice Kennedy Shriver originally founded the Games.
Finally, President Obama greeted the athletes via the “big screen,” and Michelle Obama herself greeted the athletes with motivational words, and declared “Let the Games begin!”
At the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, the skies were ablaze with fireworks.
What a fitting moment, when stepping on stage for the lighting of the cauldron, the torchbearer was revealed to be none other than Rafer Johnson, who took this role, in this very place, 31 years ago at the 1984 Olympic Games. This 1960 Olympic gold medalist decathlete, the one who founded the Southern California Special Olympics. How great to see his presence at this World Games, on his doorstep. It certainly was a night “Out of this World.”
And so the Games began.
During the week, when attending Track and Field events at USC, I learned one little-known fact of great interest to me. A program called “Healthy Athletes” provided volunteer healthcare from professionals, at seven venue sites to the Special Olympians. Athletes could receive such things as prescription eyewear, hearing aids, exams, referrals for follow-up care, dental care and such. What an extraordinary program benefitting the athletes with valuable resources.
Just one week later, the starting gun went off for the Half-Marathon at the Long Beach Alamitos Beach venue. I was fortunate to reunite with Rafer one more time, with the honor of presenting athletes with awards, and to share their excitement and their pride. Yes, as the athlete said at the opening, it was an amazing place, a place where “we are all equal.” Yes indeed.