Joanne R. McNally wrote the following story that appeared in the March 13th issue of the Record Enterprise newspaper. It’s such a moving piece that I just have to share with those of you who don’t have access to our local weekly newspaper.
After our first ever cross country ski lesson at Waterville Valley, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I was thrilled with my new skills and hungry for more time in the carefully manicured tracks winding through lovely pine and birch trees with thick snow covering and a spattering of a variety of small animal tracks in the new snow. My husband, however, had had enough after our two-hour lesson and decided to drag his aching muscles back to the room. I forgot, however, that I had the key, so when he texted that he was in the ice rink watching a hockey game, waiting for me to finish skiing, I shed my skis to join him and give him the key.
The young players were middle school age and clearly skilled at their sport. They raced up and down the ice chasing the puck from one side to the other with speed and agility, one team in red, the other in yellow. Parents and siblings on the sidelines around the Waterville rink yelled encouragement to their young players and pounded the plexiglass when things were going well for their side. The young athletes were trim, fit, handsome, and confident. Clearly, their coaches and parents had spent thousands of hours in practice and at games with these young folks. The parents viewed us questioningly. No one, of course, knew this set of grandparents who had just wandered in. We hadn’t been part of the practices or the games. No one was unfriendly, but no one said hello either.
Fast forward three hours later, and I am now ready to join the aching muscles club back at the room after a few more cross country trails and a couple more spills. To get to our unit in The Birches from the little Town Center, one has to walk through the parking lot of a very large, lovely condo and hotel called The Golden Eagle. A flurry of excited activity was taking place in the semi circle designed for unloading guests and their luggage and ski equipment. This group, however, was markedly different from the young hockey players I had seen earlier. These young folks ranged in ages from 10 to well over 40. Some struggled to keep their wheeled suitcases upright as they moved toward the entrance. Some had Down Syndrome, some had shortened limbs, some walked with difficulty and others seemed vision impaired. Adults accompanying them called to each other “Hi! What’s your name…where are you from?” “When is the ceremony tonight?….When are the fireworks?…” Young folks and adults happily greeted me too. It didn’t matter that I was not someone they recognized.
It was, I soon discovered, the arrival of the 38th Annual New Hampshire Special Olympics participants. It is unlikely that I will ever see the opening ceremonies of a real Olympic Games, but this was one opening ceremony I wasn’t going to miss.
At 7:30 that night, my husband and daughter and I walked down to the little Town Center. A stage had been set up in the open central area surrounded by two levels of shops, restaurants, the H.A Rey Center, condo rental office and the Nordic Center. Despite the bitter temperatures, at least 500 Special Olympians, their parents, chaperones, volunteers and coaches were gathered chattering happily as they waited for the ceremony. What followed was one of the most touching scenes I have ever seen. The athletes paraded in with banners waving, indicating the sending organization of the athletes. Many had lovely winter jackets emblazoned with their town or team. They proudly marched into the square waving and smiling as the crowd cheered loudly. One of the Special Olympians was the host of the ceremonies. Sometimes she struggled a bit with the words and names in her script, but no one was bothered. The many sponsors were thanked, and a Special Olympian sang a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone was wished good luck in the games to come. Each speaker was warmly recognized with the muffled thwump of 500 mittoned pairs of hands clapping enthusiastically. Off in the distance across the lake, a string of single headlights became visible as a line of ATVs and snowmobiles driven by policemen in full uniform moved slowly toward the Town Center. The lead ATV had the Olympic torch, proudly held by one of the athletes. A crowd in back of us broke into a rousing chorus of “Whatcha gonna do if they come for you…bad boys, bad boys…” Pretty funny. Everyone was having a great time. The torch holder was guided to the huge saucer shaped Special Olympics torch. The torch bearer held the flame to the saucer and…nothing…the gas lines must have been frozen from the bitter temperatures. No one cared. Wild cheering followed. Now a special surprise…at least 30 police cruisers with full flashing blue lights, sirens going, drawn from all over New Hampshire, appeared one by one in a line of dazzling lights across the lake. Some special Olympians with low noise tolerance were guided gently away from the sirens. Everyone else cheered wildly. Now came the much anticipated fireworks display. The fireworks were to be fired off from over across the frozen lake. A group of Olympians rushed lakeside, standing in front of others who had been waiting for the show. People shuffled a bit for a better view, but no one was bothered. Cheers, and ooh’s and ahh’s ensued. Occasionally, an athlete would come up to us and ask, with beautiful innocence and sincere good will, what our names were. We told them our names. They told us theirs. They were happy. Lakeside, under the night sky splashed with ever changing lovely firework colors and patterns, a young man with Down Syndrome turned to his coach and, in total joy, gave the older man a huge bear hug, grinning widely the whole time. The sky-lighting finale done, everyone crowded the narrow path back to the Golden Eagle. No one pushed, no one shoved and hands reached out to help the less abled to negotiate the icy path.
Maybe some of the young hockey players we had seen in the afternoon will go on to play high school or college hockey. One or two might even become professional players. They will have many wins in their athletic career. They will get trophies and hear lots of cheers. I am willing to bet, though, that the sweetness of just being part of the game will never be quite as sweet to them as to the Special Olympians we saw tonight. Really, isn’t that what we all want; to be part of the game and accepted for whoever we are? For these athletes who have also worked hard to learn the skills to perform their sports, the world may not always see them as winners on a daily basis, although surely those who love them do, and they probably have taken their share of bullying and feeling marginalized as they grew up. Probably they were not the popular stars of the winning hockey team in their town. Their joy today, though, as they excitedly looked forward to the games tomorrow, the pure excitement of staying at a very beautiful hotel, the fun of being the stars, at least for a few days, and the warmth and friendliness of the athletes and their coaches, the volunteers and families, was simply the most touching and heartwarming thing I have seen in a long time. Good luck, Special Olympians. No matter that none of these folks will become professional athletes, no matter that their performance times in their chosen events probably won’t make the Guinness Book of World Records.
Their innocence, wide open friendliness, and fearless joy in simple things make them all gold medalists in my book.
By Joanne R. McNally