Special Olympics Team USA received a rousing sendoff from hundreds of supporters, including AFT secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese, as the team of about 450 athletes and coaches prepared to fly from Baltimore to Athens, Greece, June 18 for the Special Olympics 2011 World Games June 25-July 4.
"We at the American Federation of Teachers are really happy and proud of you, and I am proud to be here with you," Cortese told members of Team USA, sponsored in part by the AFT, after each squad ran, sport by sport, through a human tunnel of high-fives at a hotel ballroom in Baltimore. She then offered the athletes a few tips, such as being good sports and practicing teamwork.
"Focus on having fun and doing your best," she said. "Focus on meeting new people and making new friends. Some will be speaking different languages, and they'll want to meet you, too."
This year's games grow out of a movement founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, who managed to realize her dream that young people with intellectual disabilities would be included in athletic events around the world. People ages 8 and up with cognitive disabilities and delays can participate in Special Olympics year-round, and a significant number of AFT members—in particular, the special education paraprofessionals and teachers who work with them day in and day out—volunteer to coach and support the athletes.
Martha Pachuta, a special ed teacher from western New York and member of the Genesee Valley BOCES Teachers Association, was headed to Greece with the 37-member golf team and her student Misti, who once told Pachuta, "I love sports and they don't always let me play." The AFT member got involved with Special Olympics more than 30 years ago as a way to pursue her love of sports. Although this is her first time at the World Games, Pachuta has coached Special Olympians at the nationals in alpine skiing, aquatics, floor hockey, golf, track and field, and volleyball.
AFT member Maciej Igor Litkowiec teaches adaptive physical education to elementary students near Detroit and is a coach with the aquatics team in Greece. Last year, he represented Michigan at the national games. This is his first World Games, too. "I love them; they always come with a smile," he says of his charges. "I can learn from them—the attitudes, the optimism. It's an amazing adventure."
For the past half dozen years or so, AFT member Denise Brinkman has volunteered at the Special Olympics regional games in Eugene, Ore. A member of the Lane Community College Employees Federation, part of AFT-Oregon, Brinkman volunteers in golf competitions because her partner, Patricia Church, is head coach for the Eugene/Springfield golf team. This year, Church was selected as a golf coach for Team USA in Athens.
"The first word that comes to mind is 'joy'—at coaching such great athletes who exhibit pure joy at being able to do something as simple as hitting a golf ball," Church says. "They have taught me more about teaching golf than any book I will ever read or any class I will take."
In addition to the World Games, which are held every two years alternating between summer and winter games, more than 30,000 local competitions take place around the globe each year. This year's athletes bound for the Isle of Rhodes—from the boisterous bocce team to the super-cool basketball players—set quite a patriotic tone, sporting red-and-white houndstooth-check shorts, carrying their blue AFT water bottles and chanting, "USA! USA!" They were feted the evening before their departure with heroic music, cheerleaders from Special Olympics Maryland, dinner, a balloon drop and videos of their teammates, one of whom exclaimed, "You are meritorious. You are Olympians."
ESPN3.com will stream the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2011 World Games live on the Web. To follow Team USA on Twitter, text "follow SOTeamUSA" to 40404. More information about the AFT's team sponsorship can be found here. [Annette Licitra, Leslie Getzinger/photo by Michael Campbell, video by Matthew Jones]
June 20, 2011