From the time I started gymnastics at the age of two, my life revolved around the sport. As a junior in high school, I worked out with my team five days a week and spent the rest of my time thinking about working out. As a member of the team, I competed against others, but never liked competition. My true passion was in the everyday practices and sense of accomplishment in learning new elements. I didn’t feel the need to prove myself by comparing my skills to others.
In 1995, the Special Olympics World Games were held near my hometown and our coach was involved in organizing the gymnastics venue. He asked the team to come out and volunteer for one day and I agreed to go with a few friends. Having been raised in a home where volunteering is an integral part of life, I assumed this would be one more day giving back to the community. I had no idea that what I found at the New Haven Coliseum would change my life.
Our volunteer tasks were basic: raise a flag if the athlete stepped out of bounds on the floor, time the balance beam routines, lead the teams from one event to the next, and help the coaches keep track of the athlete lineup order. Yet these simple tasks allowed me to see into a world I didn’t know existed.
All of the gymnasts in the competition had mental disabilities and many had physical impairments, too. But that didn’t stop them! They each put their hearts and souls into their routines, and took tremendous pride in their accomplishments. It was such a sharp contrast to the competitions in which I was used to participating, which were cutthroat. Officially, we competed as a team, but beneath the surface, it was every gymnast for herself. We trained hard and expected perfection; no less than that would be accepted from our coaches or ourselves.
The feeling at the Special Olympics competition was completely different. Athletes cheered each other on and they rejoiced in their performances. The tension I was used to was replaced with celebration and joy. I knew immediately that this is what competitions should be like and I wanted to get more involved in this magical organization.
Although I had only agreed to volunteer for one day, I found myself back at the gymnastics venue every day of competition. I spoke to the coaches about how they first got involved with the Special Olympics and what it would take to get certified as a coach. I tracked down the Connecticut team and met their head coach Florence Chittenden, who encouraged me to help out at their regular workouts.
At my first Special Olympics practice at the Guilford Community Center, Florence introduced me to Tom, an adult athlete who was about twice my size and non-verbal. Tom took two steps forward and pulled me into a fierce bear hug. Florence simply laughed and said, “Now you’re part of the family.” And it was true. Fifteen years later, there is no way I could ever walk away from coaching these amazing athletes.
When I moved to New York City in 2006, I was shocked to learn that there was no local Special Olympics gymnastics team. I decided to start one. I contacted every gym in Manhattan and asked to use their space once a week for practice. The Manhattan JCC on the Upper West Side agreed to donate their facility to the Special Olympics on Monday evenings, which is when a group of 15-20 athletes meets to work out. In the fall, we focus on learning new skills; teaching the athletes small steps that will lead them to more difficult tricks. Once they have mastered these elements, we teach them the routines they will perform to at the Summer State Games. And every spring, the team from Connecticut that first introduced me to the Special Olympics, visits for a friendly competition, which, just like the first one I witnessed back when I was in high school, is focused more camaraderie than pirouettes.
If you’re a former athlete with a zest for a sport and would like to learn more about getting involved in the Special Olympics, you can visit their website, specialolympics.org or write to Dave Celentano at dcelentano at nyso dot org.