Bryan and Coach in the early days.

Bryan has participated in Special Olympics with the same coach now for some twenty to thirty years. She is known affectionately as “Coach Joan” and has been affiliated with Special Olympics in the United States since it’s founding by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. As an octogenarian, Coach has decided that she will be retiring in October after half a century of serving athletes with special needs.

Prior to training with Coach, Bryan was taught by his gym teachers during the school day. When he was an early teen, we discovered that a more “serious” athlete training program was available in the central part of Bucks County. This level of participation opened up the doors to meets in other parts of the state of Pennsylvania in both Fall and Spring seasons. Coach helped us realize this broader scope of competition, which Bryan eagerly looked forward to during the year. It also helped to keep Bryan in good shape both mentally and physically.

Coach Joan was not one to sugar-coat things. This was good for Bryan. The “tough love” method helped him to really grow up in many ways. If you were going to become a top competitor, rules needed to be followed, good sportsmanship was absolutely necessary, and you had to learn to be on your own, staying in hotel and dorm rooms away from home if you were good enough to participate in the twice-yearly State Games at Villanova and Penn State.

The hardest lesson for Bryan to learn was that of good sportsmanship. After a race was completed and medals were handed out on the tiered wooden stand, nothing would do but the top step in the middle – meaning a gold medal for him. The angry pout would begin if he was on any of the lower levels or, God forbid!, on the grass. Getting only a ribbon instead of a gold, silver or bronze medal was the ultimate form of humiliation for him. And, so, after having a hissy-fit in front of the onlookers and fellow competitors, Coach would take Bryan aside and give him a stern “what for”, teaching him to congratulate his fellow athletes and swallow his pride. Shake hands with your competitors. Congratulate them all. A very hard life-lesson to be learned.

Another valuable lesson from Coach is that no matter what reward you obtain at the end of the race, you need to try to do your personal best. If you can better your recorded heat times from practice, you are a winner no matter the medal received. Celebrate the small victories.

Not only has Coach Joan taught Bryan these lessons, but she has taken him under her wing by introducing him to her church, which Bryan joined. The two of them sang in the choir together and fellowshipped at special events at the church. Sadly, the choir has disbanded, but it was a great experience while it lasted.

Bryan will miss Coach Joan. But he will have all of those many years of wonderful memories of wins and losses, porch pizza parties at her house, ice cream at the Penn State creamery, Villanova dances, summer athlete camp, and countless track and field and long distance race-walking competitions coached by Joan.

Coach has touched hundreds of lives of Pennsylvanian Special Olympics athletes with her untold hours of weekly practices, countless emails, organizing special events for the kids and teaching so many valuable life lessons. Hats off to you, Coach! Your generous service to those special athletes is a gift that is priceless. Those who have grown under your guidance may not tell you how much you mean to them, but know that you have made a profound difference in their lives. My son among them. God bless you in your well-deserved retirement!

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