Special thanks to Ellen Costlow, Special Olympics Virginia's Director of Volunteer Services, for sharing her USA Games journey below.
I’ve been working for Special Olympics Virginia for four years. I still remember my very first Board meeting where I heard athletes and family members talk about the affects Special Olympics Virginia has had on them and their families. While I listened to their stories my eyes welled and my heart filled. It felt so amazing to be a part of an organization that was helping people reach their highest potential, not just on the playing field but in school, through healthcare, among friends, and so on. I had no idea how much I would continue to be moved during my time at Special Olympics Virginia.
I met most of Team Virginia at training camp in October and I communicated with them through our Facebook group, but I didn’t really know any of the athletes or many of the coaches. When we gathered for the send-off dinner I could just feel the connection we all shared despite the fact that we hadn’t spent time together, but it wasn’t until the plane took off the next morning that I realized how deep that connection was.
On the plane I sat next to Richard, one of our bocce players, and on his other side was Jose, a basketball player. These two pretty much met for the first time on the plane and quickly introduced themselves, talked about their sports, etc. When the plane lifted into the sky Jose began to cry. He hadn’t flown in a long time, he missed his mom, he was nervous about the trip; there was so much to be afraid of in that moment. Richard had never flown and he was nervous, but the minute Jose fell apart he wrapped his arm around him and took his hand. He held Jose and comforted him while I talked Jose through some deep breathing. At some point someone mentioned Jose’s girlfriend and I said “wait! You have a girlfriend?” And then we started talking about Katrina and Jose was just fine. But if Richard hadn’t been there to hold him, I’m not sure Jose would have been able to pull himself back together. That friendship didn’t end when the plane landed, they became deeply connected through that experience. One day we had free time and Jose chose to hang out with the bocce team instead of the basketball team because he wanted to be with his new pal. It took ten minutes for those two to form a bond that I’m sure will last well beyond our trip to Seattle, and I got to watch the whole thing happen.
In addition to the connections between our athletes the commitment by our coaches was astounding. One of our coaches found out mid-way through the week that there was a medical emergency at home. Although I am sure most of her heart was at home she stayed with us, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. She coached her athletes to bronze, silver, and gold medals. She held them while they wept tears of joy after a win and praised their good sportsmanship after a loss. She kept her eyes trained on every game and only lifted her cellphone to take a photo. No one would have ever known (and many didn’t) that she was concerned and thinking about a beloved family member back home.
One of the amazing (and lesser known) things about Special Olympics is that we are the leading provider of healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities. While we were at USA Games our athletes had the opportunity to go through seven Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programs including Healthy Hearing, Special Smiles, Opening Eyes, Fit Feet, and more. Some of our athletes have consistent access to medical care at home and others don’t, but even for those who do a free pair of glasses or sports goggles is a big win and a free dental cleaning or cavity filling is a major money saver.
Moira, a bocce player, had her eyes checked in Opening Eyes and discovered she needed glasses. She and a coach selected a great looking pair and the next day she went to pick them up. While they were walking back across campus they came to one of the many staircases on the University of Washington campus. As they started down the stairs she suddenly shouted “I can see where I’m walking!” From that day on Moira had a little more pep in her step.
One of our softball players, Tyler, took a softball to the face early in the week and his tooth broke. He was taken to Special Smiles where he met an amazing dentist who said he needed a root canal. She couldn’t perform the surgery at Special Smiles but she scheduled a 10:00 AM appointment for him at her office the next day. Dr. Bolak performed a root canal, provided a crown, and filled multiple cavities completely free of charge. The next day Tyler was back on the field with a brand new smile.
This year USA Games partnered with Brooks to provide free shoes to every athlete who completed three Healthy Athletes stations and the Fit Feet station. FREE SHOES. Our entire basketball team and many of our other athletes took the challenge and left Seattle with brand new Brooks shoes. One athlete, a bocce player named Billy, was one of those who got new shoes. His coach, Joanne, said that as soon as he put the shoes on and stood up she saw his entire body relax. He was wearing a size 9 shoe when he arrived and he left in a size 7 that fit like a glove.
Team Virginia flew to Seattle as small teams and individuals who were ready to compete against athletes from all over the county. Not only did they all play their hearts out, but they left healthier, more comfortable, and with 67 new friends for life. As for me, I left Seattle reminded of just how lucky I am to be a part of Special Olympics Virginia. I’m already counting down the days until I get to see my friends again.