Friday, June 20, 2014

Guest TigerBlog: Greg Paczkowski's Special Olympics Report

TigerBlog was working at the flag football awards ceremonies yesterday for Special Olympics USA 2014 at the Lawrenceville School. 

The procedure was fairly standard. The teams would come across the stage at Lawrenceville's Kirby Theater, and each player's name would be announced as the medal was presented by one of the four New Jersey state troopers who participated or, for a few of the teams, by Cleveland Browns' cornerback Joe Haden. Then the athletes would be given bouquets of flowers and the teams would pose for pictures before the next team came out.

There were the standard reactions of athletes who receive medals. Mostly there were smiles, high-fives, hugs among teammates, handshakes for everyone and anyone they saw as they as they left the stage.

Then there was Anthony Deaton, from the unified team from Oklahoma. 

When Deaton - a tall, slender man probably in his late 20s to 30 - received his medal from the state trooper, he broke down in tears. He sobbed uncontrollably, thanking her profusely. He looked at his medal - a bronze - and cried again. 

It was a moment of pure, unfiltered joy. It was genuine emotion, and it was impossible to see it without becoming emotional as well, especially from TigerBlog's distance of about five feet away. 

For TB, it'll be one of the lasting images he takes from his time this week at Special Olympics, in a week that has been filled with lasting images. TB is also not alone among the volunteers to have this kind of experience. 

Greg Paczkowski - whose official title at at Princeton is Assistant Director of Athletics for Facilities and Aquatics but who really does a ton of everything - helped along with Karen Malec to plan and oversee the portions of the Games that have been held at Princeton. He asked TB earlier this week if he could write something about his own experience, and TB wasn't surprised to see that it mirrored his own.

Greg Paczkowski's thoughts:
It is lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon in DeNunzio Pool.  Normally the building would be nearly silent, where all you could hear is the sound of the water as it overflows into the gutters.  Today was different. A near deafening roar of applause from a capacity crowd fills the building as a young swimmer hits the touchpad to finish his 100-freestyle.  The other 7 swimmers who finished in front of him cheer for him as well and congratulate him on his last place finish. As the young man looks up at the scoreboard he screams in excitement “THAT’S MY BEST TIME!” As he gets out of the pool he puts his hands over his head and the crowd goes nuts again. Timers, officials, lifeguards, and other staff high five and congratulate him as he walks by with the biggest smile you have ever seen on his face.  You can’t help but get a little misty eyed when you witness this first hand. This is Special Olympics. 

About four years ago I sat in a meeting in D-Level conference room where the idea of bringing the swimming and track and field events of the 2014 USA Games to Princeton was discussed. None of us had any idea what to expect and it all seemed so far away. As time went on we had regular meetings to discuss the logistics on how an event of this magnitude with 3,500 athletes and 10,000 volunteers across 11 venues throughout Mercer County would run. We discussed the challenges of holding a large track meet and swim meet simultaneously during the normal Princeton workday as it related to parking, security, concessions, and janitorial coverage. This was truly a University wide undertaking composed of representatives from about ten different departments across campus.   

There was one thing that was left out of those meetings that caught me by complete surprise, and that was how much of an inspiration these athletes and their families truly were going to be. I have worked many different events at Princeton over the years and have never been part of an event like this. Of course an event such as the Doug Davis buzzer beater win over Harvard was one of the greatest Princeton events that I witnessed, half of the crowd still left the building upset. Special Olympics is different.

I figured this out very quickly on Monday morning as the song “Happy” played over the PA system in DeNunzio before the start of the session and the entire place spontaneously stood up and danced, including the roughly 100 volunteers that were on the pool deck awaiting the start of the event. Special Olympics is an event where athletes from all 50 states traveled to New Jersey to celebrate and compete WITH each other as opposed to against each other.  

The 2014 USA Games rely almost exclusively on an army’s worth of volunteers in order to make this event a success. Some of these volunteers and coaches from across the country have a personal interest in these events, such as having a child who is competing in the games. I had the chance to get to talk to some of these volunteers and the one reoccurring theme was how much Special Olympics has changed their child by allowing them to meet new people as well as engage in some healthy competition. Special Olympics gave these individuals the opportunity to do something that many people take for granted. 

Many of the other volunteers were not as close to the situation. I watched as these volunteers started to arrive on campus early in the morning still half asleep and not exactly sure what they were walking into. As they started to interact with the athletes they were very quickly transformed, just like I was. They engaged, encouraged, cheered for, and of course, high fived the athletes as they finished their races. All of the volunteers that I spoke with mentioned how this was an experience that they will never forget. 

This event has truly changed my life. I am in awe by how unbelievably positive the athletes and their families are, even with all of the adversity they had to overcome in their lives. This positive attitude enveloped everyone who came into DeNunzio Pool and Weaver Stadium, from the staff that works here every day to the volunteers who were experiencing this for the first time. It is truly inspiring and makes me wish that more people had the opportunity to experience this first hand. It puts life into perspective and makes you realize that it's not worth getting angry over trivial things and that a positive attitude is contagious. 

As Special Olympics comes to a close I really hope that all of the athletes and their families had a wonderful experience in New Jersey and at Princeton. I hope that this was an experience that they will never forget….I know that I won’t. 

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