Monday, May 3, 2010

World class athletes

Oakland Press columnist Jerry Wolffe (an Allstar athlete) with Mr. Norton and myself at the Special Olympics.

The stands were filled with a sea of blue and red as athletes and spectators joined together April 25 for Michigan's Special Olympics 32nd Annual Superstars 2010 event.

College students, the sheriff's department and even a former Detroit Lions player joined together, setting up obstacle courses and even participating in events.

Athletes enjoyed a day of camaraderie and competition, and were rewarded with ribbons and cheers for their efforts.

When I arrived at the games, I joined other volunteers in setting up a course and talking to athletes. I even participated in a relay course. I didn't get the golf balls into the "hole" and I fumbled around some orange cones, but it was worth it to see the other athletes put on their game faces and compete.

For those who have not spent a lot of time around people with cognitive and physical disabilities,
it may be an eye-opening experience. These athletes come to have a good time, but they also take the games seriously.

"People take for granted what they've got," said Karen Kmiecik, Oakland County volunteer coordinator for the Special Olympics. "When they see these kids play and give it their all, they see that things aren't so bad in their lives."

I had my own reasons for volunteering. In high school, I used to stay with Julie, who has Down syndrome, when her parents would leave to watch her younger sister's volleyball games.

Julie is an independent and smart young woman. She didn't really need me, we just hung out when we were together. If Julie felt like cooking something, she did. We watched movies and played board games. Her parents were surprised one night to come home and find that we had been playing games. They said many times, Julie preferred to just be by herself listening to music. I like to think that Julie liked spending time with me because I accepted her for who she was, and she accepted me for who I was. We had fun. She was honest. If she was happy, she hugged you, and if she was upset, she cried. I wish we could all be that brave to show our emotions.

Though I haven't seen Julie in years, I think of her often and the profound difference she has made in my life. So, I wanted to give back in some way, to thank her.

There's something special about watching the games. The athletes have a pureness about them. Many cheered for other teams, which was my main role during the afternoon, and it wasn't a bad way to spend a rainy day.

Eighteen-year-old Anthony Kucharski was one of the competitors with some impressive soccer skills.

His mother, Colleen, participated as well. Anthony, a mega Red Wings fan, made sure to keep tabs on the game score during the day.

"They love to compete," Colleen said. "None of them are losers; they are all winners."

The Special Olympics have several events throughout the year. To get involved, visit

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