2017-05-01 / Features

For the Love of the Games

Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Summer Games is the biggest event of the summer — for athletes and volunteers alike.
Robyn Passante

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Special Olympics Oath

Cathy Prosek watches her son Matt practice his chipping on the Penn State golf course during a recent practice. She stands 50 feet behind him as the 40-year-old focuses on his form, pausing to listen to his coach or laugh with his friends between swings.

A Special Olympics athlete for 32 years, Prosek swears he isn’t nervous about the upcoming statewide Summer Games, to be held on Penn State’s campus June 1-3. “I just do it for the fun of it,” he says nonchalantly. “It’s fun, just talking to people.”

Matt’s positive attitude and competitive spirit are perfect illustrations of what’s so special about Summer Games. But his mother, who stands nearby for the duration of the practice poised to do whatever’s needed to help the athletes, is too.

If you’ve lived in this area for awhile and drive anywhere near the university in the summertime, you know the Penn State campus hosts a plethora of sports camps and special events while most of the university’s students are home for the summer. But the season kicks off each year with one of the community’s biggest endeavors for some of the state’s most inspirational athletes — the Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s Summer Games.

“In this town, we’re very, very lucky. This town is open-minded, respectful, and they want to understand how to deal with people with intellectual disabilities.” —Cathy Prosek

It takes close to 2,000 volunteers like Cathy Prosek to pull off the three-day event of competitions in swimming, track and field, equestrian, golf, gymnastics, bowling, softball, basketball and tennis. And the Centre County community has been happily carrying that Olympic torch for 30 years.

“Summer Games is by far our biggest undertaking,” says Michael Daley, Central Competition Director for Special Olympics Pennsylvania. “There are so many moving pieces. But we have such a great committee of volunteers. Some have been doing it for two years, some have been doing it for 20 years. I think because the committee is so great, it makes this a great event.”

Cathy Prosek, who’s worked her way up from cheering parent to volunteer coach to Centre County’s Special Olympics competition coordinator, says Summer Games is possible not just because of the facilities and fields available on campus, but because of the community in which those venues have been built.

“In this town, we’re very, very lucky,” Prosek says. “This town is open-minded, respectful, and they want to understand how to deal with people with intellectual disabilities.”

Frank Pugliese has been helping out with Summer Games for 25 years. He currently serves as the event’s co-director with Dave Gummo, another longtime volunteer. Pugliese says it’s an exhausting week, from setup to teardown, but one in which the rewards are far greater than the stresses.

“You’re dealing with 3,000 really appreciative people,” he says of the more than 2,000 athletes and 800 coaches and heads of delegations from across the state who take part in the event. “No matter what you do, there’s always that appreciation, because you’re putting forth that effort to help them.”

That effort to help involves every kind of volunteer job you can imagine, from readying dorm rooms before they arrive, to delivering water to the various venues, to hugging athletes as they cross the finish line during track and field events. Volunteers can sign up to help with a particular sporting event or with nothing specific in mind, but they don’t have to know anything about the sport to contribute to the games.

“There’s no experience necessary. You’re going to be there helping out,” Pugliese says. “It’s on-the-job training, and you’re not expected to go there with anything but an interest.”

Pugliese got involved decades ago through a co-worker, and gradually took on more responsibility. He now helps to oversee the whole operation, which involves an overall planning committee of 80 people in charge of everything from signage to transportation of athletes to the weekend’s special events, including the opening and closing ceremonies and a Friday evening Sports Fest.

The committee begins planning the next Summer Games about as soon as the last one ends.
“Every year we adjust. And every year something new comes up,” he says.

Last year that something new was the move from East Halls to South and Pollock Halls for the Olympic Village, where the athletes and coaches sleep, eat and enjoy their downtime. Construction in East Halls forced the move, which will again be in South and Pollock Halls this year, making for more complicated transportation issues for athletes who are not used to staying so far away from most of the sports fields and facilities.

“Last year we had to move roughly 3,000 people up from South Halls to Pegula Ice Arena for the opening ceremonies. With our initial calculation, with our usual dozen buses it would have taken one and a half to two hours to move them all, for an hourlong ceremony. That just didn’t make sense,” Pugliese says. “So we had 40 buses lined up all along Pollock Road [to get everyone there].”

Bus drivers, EMTs and police officers are all paid for their time, although Pugliese says many volunteer extra hours and become attached to the athletes and the event itself.

“I’ve seen things where it looks like there were supposed to be a couple EMTs in a spot, and there’s 10 there,” he says. “They come in on their own to help out.”

Coaches and athletic trainers, on the other hand, are always volunteers, putting in a lot of time and training to make sure the athletes have a positive, safe experience. “I can’t say enough about them,” he says. Last year there were roughly 50 athletic trainers who made their way to Centre County to help out with the games.

Just below the medical and sports experts are volunteers like Bellefonte resident Marie Ritchey, who dons an orange “S.O.S.” shirt all weekend and wields one of the committee’s walkie-talkies, ready to handle a crisis if one arises.

“There’s a lot more medical staff now than there used to be, which is good,” Ritchey says. “But … everybody knows if you have a problem or question or emergency and you can’t find a red shirt, which is someone on the medical staff, you go to somebody with an orange shirt and we make sure you’re taken care of.”

Ritchey fell in love with Special Olympics 30 years ago and has been looking forward to Summer Games each year ever since.  She enjoys helping the athletes — in part because they help her.

“They really lift you up. If you’ve never been there to experience the positive energy of these athletes, you don’t know what you’re missing,” she says. “So many other people need to take lessons from the Special Olympics athletes. It’s sportsmanship at its finest. It’s friendship and camaraderie. One team can beat the daylights out of another on the field, but then they all hug each other and they’re all positive.”   

The support and excitement the athletes share with one another on the field permeates the entire weekend.

“Summer Games to a lot of the athletes is bigger than Christmas,” Pugliese says. It’s also like a family reunion, where old friends reconnect and new friends establish bonds that will only strengthen through the years.

“I have met many people over the years, a few are no longer here, and every year when I see their delegation I think of them and remember their smiles and the fun we had together,” Ritchey says. “You learn to care about these people a lot more than you think you would just by seeing them once a year.”
But don’t let all that friendship fool you. Bella Bregar, Centre County Special Olympics Program Manager, says Summer Games is also a place where records are made, not just memories.

“It’s very cool to watch them compete,” she says. “A lot of them do their personal best during Summer Games because it’s a motivator and it gets their adrenaline going.”  

This year, Summer Games is a qualifier for the 2018 Special Olympics U.S.A. Games, so athletes at the top of their game will be competing for a few select slots to represent the state in their respective sports. Centre County’s Special Olympics team for Summer Games has been as big as 90 athletes, ranging in age from 10 to 74, and they are proud to represent this community.

“We really stress this is a team, a Centre County team, and we want everyone to be proud of being part of Centre County,” Bregar says. “Summer Games is not a right, it’s a privilege. And we’ve always kept it in that high esteem value, because it should be.”  

Greg Focht, 51, has been privileged to represent his Pennsylvania roots on the Special Olympics World Games level, having traveled to Athens, Greece, in 2011, where he took second place in golf.

“It was fun,” says Focht, who became a Special Olympics athlete at age 8 and will be competing in bowling during this year’s Summer Games. “There were fireworks, and Stevie Wonder was there.”

In 2013, Special Olympics Pennsylvania inducted Focht — who over the years has also competed in basketball, softball, volleyball, bocce and golf — into its Hall of Fame.

“Once I started going I got hooked. I never understood how people can go once and not go back.” —Sue Paterno

There is also a Hall of Fame for volunteers, and Sue and Joe Paterno are in it. Sue Paterno got involved with the Special Olympics Summer Games here in the mid-’80s.

“Once I started going I got hooked. I never understood how people can go once and not go back,” says Paterno, whose annual Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run generates all the local money necessary to pull off the Summer Games. In 2016, the 5K and family fun run, which is held on Blue/White weekend and finishes on the 50-yard line inside Beaver Stadium, raised $427,000.

“It’s amazing how good this town is,” she says.

Paterno helps out with everything from the opening ceremonies, whose honorary chair this year is Penn State men’s ice hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, to the Olympic Village, and everything in between.

Watching the athletes compete and interact with one another and volunteers makes the weekend “a magical point in time,” she says.

“Their smiles and hugs will bring anybody back,” she says. “But I think what it’s done for their self-esteem and their ability to function in society is the most important thing.”

Ritchey feels similarly committed to the games. She clocks 12-hour shifts all three days. “I can’t imagine leaving before everything’s done at the end of the day,” she says.

While that’s the kind of dedication many Special Olympics volunteers have, it’s certainly not the level of commitment required to sign up.

“It’s somewhat difficult to get people involved for the first time. I think there’s a stigma, they think,

‘What’s this going to be like?’” Pugliese says. But once volunteers help out one time, he says, they are often hooked.

“The athletes, the coaches, the families truly appreciate what we’re doing for them. They are just so happy,” Pugliese says. “And if you watch these athletes as they cross the finish line or make a basket, they are so proud of themselves.”

Longtime volunteers say that kind of reaction makes everything worth it:  the stressing about arrival, when 2,000 athletes from 50 delegations all arrive in a three-hour window and need to get signed in, moved in, changed, fed and out to their first competition fields by 1 p.m. on Thursday; the stress of keeping track of and doling out all medications needed for all athletes under a delegation’s care; weather issues that can present competition and transportation challenges; and the ever-present threat of an injury, seizure, lost athlete or mishap.

That’s when it helps that the vast majority of the volunteers are local and work well together.  
“A lot of people on our committee work for Penn State, and it’s extremely helpful because they know who to contact to get whatever we need,” Pugliese says.

It’s a memorable weekend, whether you’ve trained all spring for it, or just waited all spring for it.
“I look forward to it every year,” Ritchey says. “And once you’ve been doing it for awhile, a lot of the athletes remember you year after year. And they’ll hold up the line coming off the bus to give you a hug. It’s just amazing, it really is.” •SCM

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