Special Olympics athlete oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” (Spoken by all athletes prior to competition”.)
This fall, Bryan was the PA Special Olympics “poster child” on PASO’s fundraising Facebook page. (See picture above.)
For thirty-two years Bryan has participated in Special Olympics, beginning at age eight. But for these past two seasons, the Special Olympic athletes’ oath and footfalls have been silenced; the wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices stand idle. Oh, there are virtual events in which to compete. But it’s not the same as being huddled together feeding off of the energy and excitement of your teammates, being cheered on by hundreds, seeing the police and military motorcade present the colors, hearing and marching around the track to the high school band playing the Olympic March, singing the National Anthem and showing the crowds the culmination of at least eight required weeks of intensive training with friends and coaches.
This time of year was always devoted to Special Olympics track and field meets – our spring obligations put on hold as we traveled to the local meet at our high school, the district meet at Kutztown University, and State Games at Penn State. In the fall the process was repeated with a Bucks County local meet, District meet at East Stroudsburg University, and Fall Fest at Villanova University.
Bryan misses this dearly. So do we. He still practices his race walking around the apartment complex. Most of the time he walks at a more leisurely pace than at a true S.O. practice. He’ll kick it up a notch when being timed by his roommate – the totals being sent to the State for virtual competitions. He still receives medals and assorted gear as if he were competing live. But it’s not like being there in person.
The biggest lesson Bryan has learned through these 32 years of immersing himself in the world of Special Olympics is that of learning good sportsmanship. When he was eight, the comradery and competition at a large venue fueled his desire to achieve. Any color medal he received was cherished. As he matured and was invited, by a lottery draw, to compete at the state level, winning gold became the only desirable outcome of competition. Oh, silver and bronze were also acceptable, but not as cherished as the gold.
As he competed at the higher levels, gold medals were much harder to come by as the talent pool increased exponentially. Bryan didn’t really take that into account. And, so, he began to get gold less and less. His frustration and anger increased. While on the medal stand, his face betrayed his emotions. You could read him like a book.
The head coach worked and worked with him to overcome his bad attitude about “losing” the gold. She taught him the value of doing his “personal best” – trying to beat his own times rather than the heat times of others. He also learned to swallow his pride and turn to those on either side of him on the medal stand when receiving their awards and shake hands, sharing congratulations to all the winners.
Oh, the ribbons he occasionally receives for finishing in fourth – eighth places are usually tucked away somewhere in a dresser drawer. The gold, silver and bronze medals with their colorful ribbons are proudly displayed in his bedroom. The shelf on which they hang groans with the weight of hundreds of medals accumulated over thirty-two years. But no matter how long Bryan has been doing this, each time he receives his medals is like the first time. They are cherished and hung with pride – shown to all relatives and friends at every opportunity. They even make it to church – hidden in a suit coat pocket.
Thankfully, the unseen intrinsic prize of being a good sport is becoming more valuable now than the medals which hang around his neck.