It can be said that sports have the power to create joy and unity within our society. On a recent Saturday morning, the Special Olympics Collier County hosted its County Aquatic Games at the River Park Aquatic
Center. With 30 volunteers and 35 participants, the poolside was packed with supportive friends and family members along with the lively personalities ready to jump in the pool to place for the upcoming Area Games. The event was comprised of various individual and team relays that the athletes have trained for year-long with their coaches and volunteers.
The opening ceremony kicked off at 10 AM with lightning in the vicinity that caused a short delay in the start of the relays. Volunteer Tricia Silvestrini commenced the inclusive sporting event with a warm welcome with the pledge of allegiance, a prayer and the Special Olympics motto that goes, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
The Special Olympics provides a community of inclusion. Within this community, every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. The mission of the sporting event is to make the world a better and more joyful place – one athlete, one volunteer or family member at a time.
Special Olympics fosters social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. The act of training together and playing together promotes friendship and an understanding of one another. As young people with disabilities do not often get a chance to play on their school sports teams, Director David McKenzie and County Assistant Director Justin Copertino have worked hard to make the day a memorable experience for the athletes and their families. The two organize the sports for the athletes and create the successful network of certified coaching staff with over 120 volunteers.
“To see them finish a race, cheer, then run off and hug you as they go receive their award makes it a rewarding experience.” Copertino stated, “This is what they train for. Today is a special day for them.”
The coaches teach the skills and discipline that the athletes need to compete. However, the event is more than a place for competition, but a support network that unites families. It takes a group of dedicated people and volunteers to put together an event to promote inclusivity – regardless of any disability.
The power of community created by the volunteers provides a safe place for the athletes to shine as bright as their awards. Marco Island realtor Bill Filbin has volunteered with the Special Olympics for almost as long as he has lived in the area.
Filbin recalled that when he was young, his late father would take him to his grandparent’s bar, and how he wondered why there was always soup boiling. Later, he discovered that it was, in fact, a soup kitchen. From that moment, his father taught him the importance of giving back, and he took on the legacy for his entire adult life.
Filbin was introduced to the Special Olympics over 28 years ago and has volunteered ever since. While he did coach a few athletes, he felt the drive to feed the crowd when he noticed he could help by supplying water, help set up the dining area, and serve quality food at the concession stands after all of the races. He volunteers at four to six events throughout the year. The aquatics event is a highlight while he also takes time to help out at the bowling and several track and field events. This year he helped serve 120 people after the aquatics games with hot dogs, beans, macaroni salad and sugar-free lemonade.
The most important part of the event is to cheer on the athletes. Every year the crowd sizes may vary, but the spirit and energy is always high. “If you want to witness angels on earth,” Filbin stated, “Come to one of the events. You will witness the athletes shine.”
The competition was fierce that day, Athlete Jennifer Socia, the First place winner of the 100 M Individual Medley, felt as she was on top of the world because not only did she make a big win on her birthday but her friends and family came out to watch her swim. Socia has been training on and off since 1988. Her typical training schedule that led to her consisted of laps in the pool every Saturday. Socia’s first place win allows her to move on to the Area Games.
Per the Special Olympic’s motto, Socia believes that the statement applies to life too. “You may not always do well at something, but at least you gave it your best attempt,” Socia stated. “Never, never give up!”
The next Special Olympics Florida event will be the Area Games held in Sarasota on August 19. The games will is comprised of six counties: Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, and Hendry. Based on how the athletes perform at the area games they will be eligible to compete at the State Games in the first week of October. Last year Collier County had eight athletes that went to the state games that include all 67 counties.
After the sports season, the athletes that placed will have the opportunity to go to the national level Olympic games which are held in Seattle in August 2018. Collier will be represented at the national games. Currently, there are two competitors from our county that are headed to the national games, Vivi Pantoja and Jill Walker.
To witness the athletes in action is a reward in itself. Volunteers are always invited to attend, and donations are always appreciated. Visit www.specialolympicscollier.org to find out about upcoming events, or to volunteer call Director David McKenzie at 239-775-1991.