Over 930 students and adults participated in the 39th Special Olympics summer games at the University of New Hampshire last weekend. The annual two-day event, which has been held at UNH since 1979, involved a culmination of competitions, including bocce, cycling, track and field, aquatics, power lifting, equestrian, and unified soccer.
The festivities, which were held on Friday and Saturday, June 20 and 21, began with the opening ceremony, the Special Olympics Oath, the lighting of the Flame of Hope, and also fireworks on Friday, and ended with a dance on Saturday night.
Michael Quinn, who has been the president of Special Olympics New Hampshire for the past 22 years, said his favorite part of the competition is watching the family members and athletes as they are awarded their medals, and that this event is important for both the participants and local residents.
"I think that the summer games indicate to the community that folks with intellectual challenges are capable of participating as team members and can learn a number of high level skills that transfer not just to the athletic field, but also to work, school, and ultimately to the community at large," Quinn said.
The teams, which were school, recreation and volunteer-run programs, included members from 87 local communities all across the state. The summer games is the largest competition-related event held by Summer Olympics of New Hampshire and is open to every person who wants to partake or contribute.
Each summer, more than 1,000 volunteers participate as well, including both coaches and chaperones. This year, 68 partners, 100 local program volunteers and 72 local programs lent a hand in support of the games. Both Gov. John Lynch and Attorney General Kelley Ayotte attended.
Among the teams was Derry's Timberwolves, who are coached by Derry Recreation employee Jessica Perry. The Timberwolves had 27 athletes participate, and according to Perry they earned 29 gold medals, 11 silver and 17 bronze in the track and field, bocce, and aquatic events. The athletes are from Derry, Hampstead and Chester.
Perry said although this was her third time attending, seeing the athletes interacting is always great.
"It's really great because our athletes are friends with athletes on other teams, and they don't really get to see each other except for during the games. It's really great to see them all interact, they are really excited to see each other," Perry said.
The athletes train eight months of the year for the Olympics, but they take time off after the summer games until October. They have both track and field and swim practice each week during the year, however, and they also participate in training for skiing, snowshoeing and bowling. Perry said she enjoys watching the athletes work toward a goal and earn a sense of accomplishment after seeing the results of all their efforts at the games. The event, Perry said, is unlike anything else she has experienced.
"It's really overwhelming in a good way. I remember the first year I went I had no clue what I was walking into, but it is so neat. Everyone has their home base area, but it is almost like a fair with food vendors and people selling T-shirts. Everybody is excited and in a good mood and happy to be there. It is a really great time," Perry said.
For athletes who are thinking about participating in the Olympic games, Perry said her best advice is to give it a shot, because they will not only get to participate in team or individual sports, but they will meet great people throughout the state and will also learn a new appreciation for their own accomplishments as they gain a new sense of pride.
"You walk away and see how excited the athletes are and how proud they are of themselves and you walk away realizing what things are really important. I think anybody should get involved. It's a blast; it is so much fun. It's awesome," Perry said.
Perry's most memorable moment of this year's games came when she saw one of her athletes, Susan Larson, run in with the group who carried the torch.
"She trains all year for it, because the athletes have to be able to run a mile nonstop. I don't know how she does it," Perry said. "She runs and walks every day, and that was a really cool moment."