The New York Special Olympics games are the sixth-largest Special Olympics gathering in the world. I’ve been a supporter for many years, but this year I just couldn’t write the check and call that the extent of my donation. No, I decided to volunteer. I took the pilgrimage from the hustling, bustling city of New York up the scenic New York State Parkway to SUNY (State University of New York) in Buffalo and took on the role of as a volunteer photographer for the event. Here’s a peek at that amazing weekend.
The Opening Ceremonies
The Summer Olympic Games officially opened Friday night with a special ceremony that culminated in the traditional lighting of the Olympic flame, but there was much more between the arena lights snapping on and that torch igniting the flame. Political dignitaries gave heartfelt speeches; key sponsors (such as the CEO of NewEra) pitched in with their own efforts of support too. Live musical and dance performances from the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame and SUNY Buffalo students made it festive, to say the least. But it was the parade of athletes that left the biggest impression.
An emcee announced each of the New York State regions (like countries) as the parade entered the arena to resounding applause. The athletes walked in smiling, taking photos or video, while others slapped fives to spectators who lined the walkways. These athletes had already overcame great challenges including competing (and winning) at local levels to arrive to the annual state level games. And while everyone there wanted to have fun above all else – you could see the determination in their eyes. They were serious competitors.
The pool became my first stop. As a competitive swimmer in high school I wanted to start with a sport I knew well. And swimming was an all-day affair; men racing in the morning and women racing that afternoon. I visited twice that day and caught both freestyle and backstroke events.
I was impressed with the natatorium (adorned with many championship flags) housing the swimming events, but even more extraordinary was the number of races and awards presented during the brief ceremony following each final race. The athletes smiled and celebrated as the winners received their medals.
The intensity was undeniable during the few games I watched; players dove to the floor for loose balls and one coach received a technical foul for arguing over an official’s call. This was serious basketball.
But my biggest takeaway was sitting with a team waiting to take the floor. The Staten Island squad, representing the New York City region waited patiently for their first game. A member of their volunteer staff decided to photograph the team, as well as individual players with the ball. He wanted to capture the moment for them and give them the photos. He told me he knew he knew that for many of the athletes (and their families), this was the only NYSO Summer Games they would participate in and he understood how much they would cherish the photos he provided. It made me smile not just as a volunteer, but also as a photographer.
Track and Field – The Long Jump
Late afternoon took me to the track and field events, and although many of the competitions were finished by then, I arrived in time to witness the long jump action. As a volunteer photographer, I moved in close, really close, and captured several great images of the take-off. These guys could really fly.
This year marked the second consecutive year the games were held SUNY Buffalo. The ceremonies and events ran like clockwork, and the facilities were so far above par, I wouldn’t be surprised if the games return to SUNY Buffalo for years to come. Beyond the physical setting, it was the people, the organization and its numerous volunteers that truly made the New York Special Olympics a brilliant success. Life can be hectic and challenging, but you will see me involved in the games for years to come.
stay adventurous, Craig
Adventure Mindset Tip:
Finally, after years of supporting the games through donations, I volunteered to be an active participant and experienced being a part of this incredible event first-hand. As with the New York City Marathon, being there, cheering for the athletes who weren’t just competing amongst each other, but in a quest to improve themselves, their times, and in a way their lives –was the true joy for me. Sometimes it is when you give that you truly receive, and this was one of those weekends.
In New York, the events are FREE and open to the public. So, if you want to experience supporting the athletes and the countless volunteers just go and be a spectator, watch the competition and cheer. I intend to return next year and hope you will be moved to sit in the stands, support of the local Special Olympic Games nearest you and root for humanity.