Usually my posts are on a topic related to money. This one is not. If you’ve known me or my family for any length of time, you know that we have a very strong tie to the Special Olympics program in our area. We just completed our 12th year of coaching the central Brevard County Special Olympics Track and Field team. Every Saturday morning, from January through May, we work with over 40 special athletes, helping them improve their fitness and performance in competitive games. As rewarding as that part of our involvement has been over the years, it’s not the subject of this post.
Special Olympics is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In fact, July 20 was the anniversary of the first-ever Special Olympics Games, started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and held in Soldier Field in Chicago. The organization, founded to give athletes with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to compete, has come a long way.
Several years ago, the organization wanted to create a way for special athletes to compete at an even higher level. They established the Unified Sports Program, which brought together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to compete on the same team. Brevard County’s Special Olympics program has enthusiastically embraced the Unified Program and nine years ago started a Unified Softball team. When I was offered an opportunity to become a Unified Partner and play on the softball team, I jumped at the chance. Little did I know the impact the program would have on my life.
Coach Tonya Snodgrass started putting together a team of athletes and partners who she knew would work well together. Our season would start in July of each year and culminate with the State Championship games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in November. We have some very high-functioning special athletes on our team and would always be in the hunt for the gold medal at State Games. We won several of them.
In 2014, we were invited to represent Team Florida at USA Games in New Jersey. We participated at a very high level and went 8-0 on our way to a gold medal on the national level. We received a police and fire escort on our way back into town and later received recognition from U.S. House Rep. Bill Posey, the Brevard County Commissioners, and the Mayor and City Council of Melbourne. I thought it would be the highlight of my Special Olympics athletic career. I was wrong.
The makeup of our team changed slightly over the years. In 2015, my son, Adam, joined the team as another of our Unified Partners. We were one of two father-and-son combinations on our team. It’s pretty special to be able to play catch and compete with your son. Our team improved over time, and from 2015 to 2017 we won three State Championships in the Unified Division. And then we were invited to the 2018 USA Games in Seattle.
It was a chance for us to defend our gold medal from the 2014 Games. Winning one gold medal is pretty cool. Having a chance to win a second was going to be awesome! We started practicing in January of this year to prepare for the USA Games at the beginning of July.
On June 29, our Unified Softball team became part of Team Florida, a delegation of 237 who would participate at USA Games. We boarded a flight to Seattle with the Team Florida athletes who would participate in 14 sports, from basketball, flag football, and volleyball, to bowling, swimming, and track and field—and many more.
Opening Ceremonies for USA Games were held at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium on Sunday, July 1, and were broadcast live on the ABC network. Those welcoming us to Seattle included the Governor of Washington, the President and CEO of Microsoft, University of Central Florida football sensation Shaquem Griffin, several musical stars, the Salish Seas People, an indigenous Indian tribe from the area, and many more. The event included the Parade of Athletes, over 4,000 athletes from all 50 states. We were proud to march on to the stadium field representing Team Florida. The event also included the Lighting of the Special Olympics Torch, marking the official opening of the games. It’s a pretty big deal. ESPN provided coverage of the games all week.
Our softball team began our competition on Monday. The first couple of days were spent in a round-robin format, with the medal rounds starting on Thursday. In the opening rounds, we beat Team Arkansas by a score of 14-2. In our second game of the day, we lost a heartbreaker to Team Indiana 11-10. On Tuesday, we beat Team Texas in extra innings in a tense and wild game. We were 2-1 in the preliminary round.
We had a rest day on July Fourth and were able to celebrate Independence Day in the cool and comfortable temperatures of the Pacific Northwest.
On Thursday, we got back to competition. Our first game in the medal round was a rematch against Team Indiana. We played better this time and won 14-11. That put us in the gold medal game against the host team, Team Washington. We played well and won the game and the gold medal! The final play of the game was a ground ball to Adam, who threw to me at first base for the final out. It was a father-and-son moment I will always cherish. We had defended our gold from the 2014 Games!
The celebration was emotional for all of us. In a very poignant moment, Coach Tonya and I participated in a special retirement ceremony. She was retiring from coaching after 30 years, and I was retiring as a player. We met at home plate, hugged, and then took off our cleats and left them sitting on the plate as we walked away. Hugs were everywhere as we all realized that we wouldn’t be together like this again.
On Saturday, we proudly wore our gold medals to the airport as we said goodbye to Seattle. We were welcomed home at the Orlando airport by a cheering crowd of supporters. And, even though it was late, we received another police and fire truck escort as we arrived back in Brevard to meet our family members and friends.
It was a special week with a lot of special moments. Special Olympics has been very special to me and my family. Thank you, again, to all of you who helped make this possible.