Going for the Gold

By Grace Collins ‘22, June 26, 2022
Ithaca College hosts the 2022 Special Olympics New York Summer Games.

On June 24 and 25, thousands of athletes, coaches, family members, supporters, and volunteers gathered at Ithaca College to celebrate the competition and camaraderie of the 2022 Special Olympics New York Summer Games.

The 2022 Summer Games marked the first in a three-year partnership between IC and Special Olympics New York. Competitions were held in eight sports — aquatics, bowling, basketball, gymnastics, powerlifting, tennis, track and field, and volleyball — at IC athletics facilities and local venues like Ithaca High School and Midway Bowl. This year brought extra cause for celebration, as this was the first in-person Summer Games after a nearly three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our community is thrilled that the Summer Games will be making their home here on our beautiful South Hill campus and in the city of Ithaca for the next three years,” said Ithaca College president La Jerne Terry Cornish. “We hope to create an amazing and unforgettable experience for everyone participating, and we’re thankful to the countless individuals who have dedicated themselves to ensuring that the resumption of the Summer Games is a magnificent success.”

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics New York is a non-profit organization on a mission to empower people with intellectual disabilities through year-round training and competition in a variety of Olympic sports. Serving more than 51,000 athletes, Special Olympics New York has grown to become the largest program of its kind in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.

Carrying the Torch

Athletes from across the state arrived on campus, joined by coaches and volunteers from their delegations on Friday. For many athletes, the weekend spent in IC residence halls marked the first time they traveled and spent the night away from their families, furthering the Special Olympics mission to help athletes develop confidence and independence.

President and CEO of Special Olympics New York Stacey Hengsterman, who is also a parent of a Special Olympics athlete, saw this firsthand.

“This game is extra special for me and my family because I get to be here as a mom for the first time,” Hengsterman said to the athletes during the Opening Ceremony. “My son, Alex, will be competing in powerlifting tomorrow at his first State game. Before we met all of you, we didn't have this vision for him. We had no idea what an incredible athlete he could be. Now, he tells me all the time that Special Olympics has changed his life.”

The Opening Ceremonies officially begun as the athletes paraded into the Campus Center quad. Representing the seven regions of New York State, athletes were met with cheers, applause, and fist bumps as they made their way to the stage.

“What I really like about the Special Olympics is that my coaches never use the word disability, only the word abilities, and that helps us to become better athletes,” said athlete Amy Cusano, who has been competing with the Special Olympics for nearly 20 years.

The ceremony continued with President Cornish joined on stage by athlete Chris Tiechfor the recitation of the Special Olympics athlete oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Special Olympics New York and the Summer Games are heavily supported by state-wide law enforcement personnel, known as their “Guardians of the Flame.” Officers from the New York State Park Police, Ithaca Police Department, and Ithaca College Public Safety were present throughout the weekend, taking part in the Law Enforcement Torch Run and patrolling the Games.

To close out the evening, athlete Kinsey Henry and Barry Banfield of the Ithaca Police Department carried in the ceremonial torch and lit the flame.

In It To Win It

Saturday was filled with competition and excitement as hundreds of medals were awarded to athletes. With many athletes excelling in different events, the sound of their medals clinking together around their necks became louder and louder throughout the day.

Competitions took place in facilities across IC’s campus, from aquatics in the Kelsey Partridge Bird Natatorium to gymnastics in the Hill Center Gymnasium.

Athletes and coaches alike relished in the opportunity to show off their hard work to crowds of enthusiastic attendees.

“I’ve been with the Special Olympics for 10 years, and I could not have asked for anything better. I would not change anything in my life, and I want to say thank you to all the supporters and everybody who came to Ithaca.”

Special Olympics athlete Kinsey Henry

“I'm open to anyone coming into any routine or class,” said Marlene Von Vange Michels, an adaptive physical education teacher and coach of the Special Olympics team at World Class Gymnastics Academy in Latham. “We practice year-round and I just want them to have a great time and to stick their routines and have an awesome experience.”

“I’ve been with the Special Olympics for 10 years, and I could not have asked for anything better,” said athlete Kinsey Henry. “I would not change anything in my life, and I want to say thank you to all the supporters and everybody who came to Ithaca.”

The evening concluded as the athletes once again filled the Campus Center Quad for a lively Closing Ceremony dance party where they celebrated to the tune of crowd-pleasers like “We Are the Champions” by Queen.

A Community Effort

In addition to providing opportunities for the competing athletes, the Summer Games also allowed members of the IC community to get involved and give back. Over the two days, nearly 800 volunteer shifts were filled by students, alumni, faculty, staff, and local community members.

“This was my first time volunteering, and it was a great experience to see so many people come together for the occasion,” said Allison Arndt, DPT ‘23. “The energy at the opening ceremony was electric, the athletes and volunteers were all having so much fun together.”

These efforts reinforce several tenets of the Ithaca Forever strategic plan: become a year-round campus for living and learning opportunities; develop cross-sector and community partnerships that address challenging issues, optimize the use of resources, and serve the public good; and be a national model for colleges committed to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

One key initiative were the Health Performance and Healthy Athlete Screening Stations. Spearheaded by Jill Mayer, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy, and Bonnie Riley, assistant professor of occupational therapy, these stations supported athletes before, during, and after their competition.

Staffed by students and supervised by faculty and local healthcare professionals, the stations gave more than 50 upperclassmen and graduate students in the physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physician assistant programs a unique hands-on opportunity to put their classroom skills into real-world practice with an under-represented population of athletes.

Set up throughout the Olympic Village and within IC health sciences facilities and clinics, the resources and services available to the athletes was an effort to lessen the health disparity gap that disproportionately impacts people with intellectual disabilities.

“Many Special Olympics athletes deal with these disparities and do not receive or have access to the healthcare that they need and deserve,” Mayer said.

Athletes were led in dynamic warm-ups and stretches, and learned about hydration, nutrition, mental readiness, and goal setting.

Following the competitions on Saturday, the Healthy Athlete Screening Stations took a more clinical approach. Athletes were screened for vision and hearing, blood pressure, and vitals, as well as assessed for balance, strength, range of motion, and flexibility. They then worked with the healthcare volunteers to make plans for improving their personal health and lifestyle habits.

“This is an example of us living up to what we say we're going to do. We are connected with the state of New York right now through this venture, and we're excited to be doing this for the next three years.”

President La Jerne Terry Cornish

“We're all constantly learning, both as faculty and as students, about ways to increase access to health care,” Mayer said. “I want the students can see the potential impact they have on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and learn to recognize the disparities in our healthcare system. These athletes have worked really hard to get to the Summer Games, and so I hope they felt supported and welcomed by the IC community.”

The weekend was an unqualified success, and the future is equally bright.

“When I assumed the role, I said that my three words were ‘intentionality, connection, and care’,” said Cornish. “This is an example of us living up to what we say we're going to do. We are connected with the state of New York right now through this venture, and we're excited to be doing this for the next three years.”

Additional Information

To learn more about the Special Olympics New York and its work, including how to make a donation, please visit its website at: https://www.specialolympics-ny.org/