The Most Special of Games

Matt Minning.

Matt Minning.

By IGOR GURYASHKIN
Staff Writer

While American sports fans are gearing up for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, ready to cheer on their compatriots in a host of events, there is another Winter Olympics taking place closer to home that is not nearly as well-known. Between Jan. 26-28, on the snowy undulations of Perfect North Slopes in Indiana, close to a 100 Special Olympics Kentucky athletes will take part in the 2014 SOKY State Winter Games. An opening ceremony will precede a day of training and time trials before athletes look forward to the medal ceremonies and party afterwards, a decades-long tradition that’s going from strength to strength.

“The people at Perfect North love having this event up there and have really been welcoming to us,” says Mark Buerger, Director of Communications for the Special Olympics in Kentucky. “The local Lawrenceburg community has been great. We’ve got local restaurants there that provide food for our volunteers throughout the course of the week. We’ve got a local school group that comes out every year and sets up the dance and provides the dinner for our athletes on Monday night as well. So we do have a great deal of community that bind us. And then there those Indiana groups that come and take care of our athletes.”

Less attention is given to the Special Olympics than the the Olympics and Paralympics (that follow soon after), though the Special Olympics has as close a relationship with the International Olympic Committee as its counterparts. Part of this, according to Buerger, may be down to a misunderstanding about what the Special Olympics is and who qualifies.

Brandon Herzog.

Brandon Herzog.

“The biggest difference (between the Paralympics and Special Olympics) is how athletes come to qualify for the different organizations,” Buerger says. “Paralympic athletes qualify with some sort of physical disability. Some of them have had an amputation, some of them have been paralyzed. So it’s various physical limitations or physical disabilities. Our athletes all come to Special Olympics because they have an intellectual disability. Our athletes come to us with cognitive delays, a lot of our athletes have autism, down syndrome, things like that. What that means for our athletes, is while some of them do have physical limitations that go with their intellectual disability, a lot of them are really pretty gifted athletes. We have a young man who has been a figure skater at the World Games and a skier.”

That young man is Brandon Herzog, 31, who will be competing in this year’s games in skiing and ice skating, but has taken part in nearly every sport in the Special Olympics since he first took part at the age of 8. Runae Nichols, Herzog’s mother, remembers how Brandon tried his hand at in swimming, track and field, softball and bowling, but found his true passion with figure skating. Herzog won a gold medal in the sport at the 1997 International World Winter Games held in Toronto, where he also met his steadfast friend Roma Zinurov, a Special Olympian from Russia. Zinurov has come to visit Nichols and Herzog on numerous occasions, bonding with Nichols so much so he started calling her “mom,” owing to the fact that Zinurov had been living in an orphanage from a young age.

Jeremy Thompson.

Jeremy Thompson.

For Nichols, the upside of the Special Olympics has been immeasurable for her son. Competing has raised his self esteem, a common issue for special needs children who, for example, find it hard to bond with children in public schools.

“When he (Brandon) was in a regular school after we left Ursuline Pitt School, he was in Oldham County schools, and children would come up to him in the library and ask for his autograph when he was on TV,” Nichols says.

The secondary advantage of the Special Olympics beyond fitness and competition is the fact that each participant gets to socialize with fellow athletes at each event, and often become steadfast friends.

“I think Special Olympics athletes are not as inhibited as regular athletes when it comes to communicating with other athletes from different countries,” Nichols says. “When they’re actually competing, they put their whole heart into it. They compete and do their damndest to win, but as soon as the competition is over, you’ll see them at the tables. It’s not this team and that table and this team at that table, they’re all just hanging out laughing and having a good time. They work hard because they want to get the medal, but they also make friends and have fun doing it.”

Latrell Sanders.

Latrell Sanders.

According to Buerger, the strength of the Special Olympics is not only that it allows athletes to find common ground based on disability, but the fact that everyone has trained as hard as they can to excel at their respective events. Just like professional athletes, the key ingredients for success at the Special Olympics are dedication and hard work.

“They [the athletes] share the competition and they share similar struggles and similar backstories, and that’s really a big part of our program,” he says. “There’s a huge social element to Special Olympics for our athletes, whether they’re on the local or national or world level, because our athletes enjoy getting to spend time with people that understand them and are like them.”

One common misconception that Buerger is keen to debunk is that every participant gets a medal. It could not be further from the truth; the participants who reach a certain standard – a result of hard training – get medals.

“We certainly hope everybody has a great time but they don’t all get a gold medal,” he says. “We divide them based on age and demonstrated ability level, so if they compete well they have an opportunity to win, but if they have an off day they might not win. That’s an important part of the process for anybody who’s competed.

“You can learn as much from a loss as you can from a win,” Buerger continues. “And it gives you something to work harder for the next time. So we’re asking the same thing out of competing in the Special Olympics that every other athlete does. They gain confidence, they learn to work with coaches, they learn to work with teammates. And they learn skills like that that translate into classrooms and into jobs and into any other aspect of their life.”

CJ MacFarlan.

CJ MacFarlan.

For Nichols, that meant seeing her son Brandon’s persistence in ice skating morph from taking lessons into excelling, mastering double jumps, bagging a gold medal at the 1997 World Winter Games and now teach basic skating classes at his local Louisville ice rink.

Since 1968, the year in which the First International Special Olympic Games took place at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Special Olympics has grown from its roots as a day camp created by founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver for individuals with intellectual disabilities to a movement with 2.5 million athletes spanning more than 180 countries with around 30,000 competitions being held annually through the help of 750,000 volunteers and 300,000 coaches. It will be the volunteers who will prove so valuable when Kentucky’s finest Special Olympians take to the slopes in Indiana for the Winter Games, whose help Buerger maintains is invaluable.

“This will be my thirteenth winter games with Special Olympics, and I’ve seen the same people come and volunteer at this event for all 13 of those years,” Buerger says  proudly. This year, there will be around 100 volunteers who will make the trip. “In fact, we’ve got some folks that have been with us for all 34 years. We’ve got what we call ski Partners, and it’s primarily people from the Louisville Ski Club and the Cincinnati Ski Club who come out every year and work one-on-one with our athletes getting them ready for the competition.”

For some athletes, it may be their first ever time on the piste, while for others, it may be another year to add another medal to their collection. But for all, it’s another chance to bond, make friends and add to the rich history of the Special Olympics.

“One of the goals of the Special Olympics is to bring those people with intellectual disabilities out of the shadows,” Buerger says. “To show the community and the world what people with intellectual disabilities are capable of when opportunities are made available to them in a competitive arena, whether it’s in their schools or in their jobs. And as many benefits as our athletes gain from this, the community gains, too, because they gain a better understanding of our athletes and their abilities and the lives that they lead.”

Courtesy Photos