Competing is 'transformative" for athletes at 2014 Special Olympics USA Games at Princeton
The five runners, competition numbers pinned to their brightly colored uniforms, stepped out of the shadow of the bleachers and onto the sunny track at Princeton University, waving to the crowd. At the crack of the starting gun, the spectators leapt to their feet cheering wildly, waving handmade posters such as "Max=Champion" and "Team Texas." In a matter of seconds, the first heat of the 50-meter dash was done, and each of the five athletes looked equally triumphant.
Throughout this week, June 16-20, Princeton and several colleges, universities and private schools in Mercer County are hosting events for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games — the first national games to be held in New Jersey. The University is hosting track and field events at Weaver Stadium and swimming at DeNunzio Pool.
Close to 100 members of the University community are serving as volunteers on campus during the games in a range of capacities including competition escorts, awards preparations assistants, awards escorts, food and beverage attendants, family services attendants, and Welcome Day assistants.
Thomas Harrington of Hamilton, New Jersey, has served as an assistant women's track coach at the University since 2005, but this week he is in charge of far more than one team. As athletics commissioner for this year's Special Olympics games, Harrington is overseeing the logistics for nearly 3,500 athletes who are competing in 16 team and individual events including baseball, basketball, gymnastics, golf, soccer, tennis, triathlon and volleyball. The athletes, who are children and adults with intellectual disabilities, are supported by 1,000 coaches and delegates, 10,000 volunteers, and 70,000 spectators and family members.
On the first day of competition Monday, Harrington was everywhere: high-fiving the athletes as he walked through the stadium, greeting families and volunteers, fielding calls on his walkie-talkie, checking the bottled water supply and eyeing the long jump pit he had raked that morning. His main destination was the shot put area, where he sat on a bench among athletes, and soon found himself enveloped in a group hug. "You having fun?" he asked them. They answered with a resounding "Yes!"
Harrington has volunteered with Special Olympics for 25 years, ever since the organization asked him to run a clinic for its coaches when he was the track coach at Lawrence High School.
He said he was "hooked" from the start because of the kids. "They are some of the most wonderful, loving people," he said. "They appreciate everything you do for them. I heard years ago the saying 'every child is gifted; some just open their packages sooner than others.' I'm just happy to be around them as they open them and see the wonder of what they have been blessed to get!"
What keeps Harrington coming back is his commitment to serving others. "The desire to help and give has been my life goal," he said. "I'm a big softy at heart — I just try to hide it. No matter how many times I go away exhausted from helping and saying I won't be back, if I see one of the kids who remembers me and comes up and gives me a high-five or hug, I'm hooked again."
Harrington, who has served as the state director for New Jersey athletics for the Special Olympics for more than a decade, helped bring the games to Mercer County, beginning with presentations three years ago to the Special Olympics national organization.
Several people and departments at the University have helped on campus, Harrington said, highlighting Karen Malec, associate director of athletics, and Gregory Paczkowski, assistant director of athletics for facilities and aquatics; as well as staff of Building Services; Public Safety; Conference and Event Services; Community and Regional Affairs; and Dining Services.
Harrington said it is "really special" to have Princeton host both track and swimming, the two most highly viewed sports at most Summer Olympic games. "Princeton University is a wonderful place with outstanding students and staff and this is a chance for them to show the National Games, athletes, parents and public what a first-class community the University is," he said.
While assembling a committee of volunteers to manage the track and field events, Harrington contacted Agatha Offerjebe, a 2009 alumna and former member of Princeton's women's track team. "She was an All American in the distance medley relay her sophomore year, and Ivy League champ in the 200- and 400-meter dash her senior year," Harrington said, rattling off just a few of Offerjebe's accomplishments.
"I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer because I know the important role track had on my life, and I wanted to help provide a positive experience for the Special Olympics athletes," said Offerjebe, an ecology and evolutionary biology major who joined Princeton in Africa as program manager in 2012, after completing a fellowship with the program in Gaborone, Botswana, in 2009-10. At the end of June, she will start medical school at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Offerjebe said she is particularly proud to see the track and field events taking place at the University. "I ran at Weaver Stadium for four years, and while I may be a little biased, I think it's one of the best facilities in the country," she said. In summer 2015, she hopes to volunteer with Healthy Athletes Experience — which provides free health screenings for the athletes — during the Special Olympics World Games, which will be held in Los Angeles.
Naida Chipego, a staffing assistant in human resources at the University, and her husband, John, who works for BlackRock, one of the many corporate sponsors of this year's games, served as competition escorts. They were joined by their daughter Jennifer, a recent graduate of West Chester University, at Weaver Stadium and assigned to accompany athletes to their events.
Naida Chipego said she has enjoyed meeting athletes from across the country. "Jennifer volunteered for the Special Olympics when she was a teenager and always talked about how rewarding it was. When I heard the Olympics were going to be in our backyard, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to join the community and do something that is personally rewarding and rewarding to the athletes."
At DeNunzio Pool, Laurel West and her husband, Karl Zweerink, of Richmond, Virginia, were eagerly waiting to watch their son, Nick Zweerink, swim the 100-yard individual medley. Seated with the other family members of Team Virginia, including Nick's grandmother, Jean Matzinger, West said that participating in the games "has been a transformative experience" for her son. "He has been practicing six to seven nights a week since he found out last year he had made it on the team," she said. "He has gotten so motivated — he can't believe the moment has finally come."
The athletic events are free and open to the public. Do not bring any bags or coolers. Concessions are available at DeNunzio Pool and Weaver Field.