Team Players: Special Olympics Athletes Make Jersey City Proud
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Roman gladiators once uttered the phrase that today is spoken at opening ceremonies of Special Olympics competitions.
After the national anthem is played, an athlete reads the oath as a call and response pledge. On this February morning, Hudson County’s own Angel Torres, 20, had the honor. He stood at the microphone and led as the crowd respectfully contained their excitement.
The place was already buzzing. Wallington Lanes hosted the Bowling North Sectional competition, and youth began cheering as soon as the announcement came over the loud speaker that, “Lanes are now open for practice!”
Hudson County’s team were identifiable by light blue shirts, but if you wanted to watch only Hudson County teams, you’d need more than one vantage point; there were so many local representatives that they were spread in all directions through 48 lanes. Luckily, the coaches are used to that kind of multi-tasking.
For example, a Jersey City coach, Pedro Lopez, was both talking on his cell phone to a former athlete whose parents moved the family to Egypt (the athlete calls him every Saturday from the other side of the globe to see how the team is doing) and giving advice to bowlers on stance and technique.
The enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s this passion that propels the Special Olympics.
It’s impossible to investigate the Special Olympics in Hudson County without talking to, and about, Anita Nedswick.
Nedswick is the Area Director for Area 1, which includes all of Hudson County. In short, she knows everything there is to know about the Special Olympics in our area, plus a whole lot more. She can rattle off phone numbers, dates, and addresses in the middle of a conversation. She remembers thousands of names of athletes, volunteers, coaches, and organizers. She can tell you their stories, too. “Every coach has a story,” she asserts.
She was a media skills teacher when she got involved with the Special Olympics. Another teacher, “I think her name was Anne. Yeah. Anne,” Nedswick begins, reminiscent, “Anne would bring her special education class into the library. They told me about their track and field team. I asked if they needed help. After school, I went up to the track meet and I was hooked.”
Nedswick, like so many of the organizers for the Special Olympics, began as a volunteer. Next thing she knew, she was coaching the team. When Anita began coaching, some 25 years ago, track and field was the only sport they participated in. And Hudson County was the first county (hence Area 1) to have a track team. “It’s a lot better now,” she says, “They actually have a budget now. We used to do all our own fundraisers. Or coaches just paid out of their own pockets.”
She tells me about a time she used her credit card to pay for a bus so the team could attend a competition. This act of generosity doesn’t seem to phase her. “It’s all for the athletes,” she finishes, “When you see the progress the athletes make, it’s very meaningful. It gives you a lot of satisfaction.”
The progress she’s referring to isn’t counted in gold medals, not that Hudson County hasn’t won any. Most recently, our Jersey City Basketball team won a gold medal at the state games in Trenton, despite the fact that the Jersey City team is comprised of all teenagers, and their opponents were adult teams. The real mission of the Special Olympics is to create opportunities for the athletes that might be very challenging without the help of the program.
“Sports force friendships,” says Dina Kosc, Program Coordinator of the Jersey City Schools Special Olympics program.
Relationship building, like the friendship of track and field stars, Aimee Roche, 19, and Miguel Anglero, 20, demonstrate the success of the program. They’ve been friends for eight years; they met in the program. “I changed schools,” says Aimee, “ and I didn’t know anyone, so my mom thought I should join to meet people.”
“My doctor recommended it,” Miguel chimes in, “and I was really surprised when my dad ended up knowing a lot of people there.” While Miguel’s father’s networking may seem surprising, it’s not when you witness the strong sense of community that is widespread on all levels of the Special Olympics, from athletes to parents to volunteers. No one’s an outsider here – there’s no room for exclusion in this program.
“We’re like a family,” Aimee says, and “We’re really close,” Miguel says simultaneously.
Both athletes talk about how the program changed them. “I’m able to adapt to any disability because that’s what’s normal to me,” says Miguel, who went to the National Games in Nebraska last summer. (The National Games will be held in New Jersey in 2014, having beat out Boston for the bid.)
The athletes are poised and excited when offering advice to new runners. “Practice,” Aimee offers, “Hard work does pay off, even if it seems like it doesn’t.”
Jose Lara, Aimee and Miguel’s assistant coach, has other guidance for newbies. “Stay in your lane. Never cross into someone else’s lane.” Lara, once an athlete himself, has a very balanced approach to coaching. “It’s not about the win or the lose, it’s about having fun. It’s a learning process.”
Lara, a former member of the “best team ever,” according to Aimee and Miguel, is a spectacularly patient and contemplative listener. He doesn’t rush to speak, but when he does, he tells me about his experience in the transition from player to coach.
“I’m just a normal guy. To me, when I started this, my sister was in it. I see a lot of kids like me. Some of these coaches out here worked with me when I was a kid. I already knew the routines, so I kinda helped them out. I want to make people feel comfortable… I teach them cardio, and stretching, good breathing methods so they can learn how to breathe when running. We teach the methods, the basics. But there’s always a next time, so we teach them how to have fun, how to be focused, how to prepare. I wanna make them love the sport, but I want to make sure they feel comfortable.”
Lara came to the Special Olympics because his sister was an athlete. He says he was “eleven…or twelve…” when he joined, and enjoys his new role as a coach. He seizes his chance to help younger athletes learn from their mistakes, no matter how long it takes. He’s dedicated, like so many involved with the Special Olympics, including the parents.
“About ten years ago, when the program was about the be dissolved, parents wrote letters and cards to the Board [of Education]. It worked,” says Kosc, Program Coordinator. Kosc holds two masters degrees, one in Special Education and one in Administration. She runs the program in Jersey City under the umbrella of the Board of Education.
The Jersey City Schools program will be completing its sixteenth year this June. They service youth with intellectual disabilities, aged 8-21. The disabilities range in severity, and include commonly known disorders such as ADD, Cerebral Palsy, and Autism. “We’re seeing more and more athletes with autism,” notes Nedswick.
This year, there are over 250 youth participating in track and field, bowling, basketball, softball, and swimming. They practice from September to June, with local and regional competitions throughout the school year. The year culminates with the State’s games, which are held in Trenton. All the competitions are separated by age, as well as gender.
The schools program additionally includes a Young Athlete Program for kids 3-7, but they have a shorter season. No matter what age the athlete is, “It’s an inclusive environment that teaches kids to learn from each other,” says Assistant Coach Carla Perez. This year, there are upwards of 200 youngsters involved.
Jersey City also has a Special Olympics Recreation program (in addition to the program run by the schools), but their program is funded separately, and has fewer athletes. Coach Sonia Colon has been in charge of this team of around 20 athletes for fifteen years. Her athletes range in age from 10-24, and they all practice together.
“I have such a small group, I incorporate my big guys with my little guys,” Colon says. To her, it’s important to keep everyone doing the same activity at the same time. “We all run together, exercise together. Even do jumping jacks – all at the same time.”
Colon works for Jersey City Recreation, and has watched this same group of athletes grow since she began leading the recreation program. “Anything I can involve them with, I do. I don’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. They don’t want to swim, so we don’t swim.”
While the size of the program, and the resources, are much smaller than the Jersey City Schools Special Olympics, this allows for a different kind of care. For example, Colon drives the students door to door, to and from events.
The Jersey City Schools program is too large for door-to-door service. They meet at schools around the city: M.S. 40, Ferris Junior Academy, P.S. 38, P.S. 28, and P.S. 17. Parents drop off and pick up their children, but there is at least one coach and one assistant coach at each site, numbers increasing as enrollment does. All the coaches are trained by the New Jersey Special Olympics, and they’re Jersey City Public School Instructional staff as well.
In short, the athletes are in good hands. “You’d be amazed how many parents say they never knew this program was available [through Jersey City Schools]. I want all the parents to know,” says Kosc.
Taking the leap from knowing about the Special Olympics to participating is as easy as downloading an application on the Board of Education’s website, or going to an event, which Jim McKeever encourages everyone to do.
“When people actually see what we do, when they see the athletes and the dedication, it changes their understanding. It’s an amazing thing to see.” McKeever believes that the Special Olympics have changed the way the general public perceives people with intellectual disabilities. “We’ve come a long way,” he says.
McKeever is a retired police officer for the Port Authority. He has been instrumental in terms of fundraising for the Special Olympics, specifically through his leadership of the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The LETR is a year-long statewide campaign which raised over $3 million dollars in 2012, and is on track to surpass that amount this year. If that number seems tremendous, that’s because it is. The Law Enforcement Torch Run has won a friendly competition for greatest amount of money raised internationally for the past seven years.
“Everyone wants to beat us,” he said, “and I hope they do. The more money, the better. But it’s great that little old New Jersey consistently raises the most money.”
It’s these kinds of efforts that create the environment of mutual respect and shared successes that the Special Olympics athletes enjoy. And in 2014, our local teams will be ready to receive the national games with genuine Jersey pride.
Photos: Amy Hand. Top photo: Special Olympics Basket Ball Practice (left to right) Anthony Tavares, Jocelyn Williams, Miles Wright, Dwayne McCord, Evan Belmonte