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Let the Games Begin: Summer Special Olympics in State College Start Thursday

by on June 05, 2013 4:55 PM

Thousands of coaches, athletes, and volunteers are set to descend upon State College for the 44th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games.

Competition gets underway Thursday afternoon and runs through Saturday. Athletes from all over the state will be going head-to-head in a variety of sports including swimming, basketball, bowling, golf, gymnastics, softball, and tennis.

This year’s installment of the summer games marks the 26th consecutive year that the event has been held on Penn State’s campus, but a more recent tradition will highlight tomorrow night’s opening ceremonies.

Festivities begin at 7:15 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. The opening ceremonies will end with the lighting of the special olympic's cauldron. The flame will come from a torch that was lit at home plate in PNC Park in Pittsburgh, three days ago. Hundreds of runners representing over 40 different law enforcement officers are taking part in a 150-mile run to get the torch to State College.

This is the third straight year for the “Be a Fan” torch run. Nicole Jones, Director of Communications for Special Olympics Pennsylvania calls the torch run a welcome, and successful, addition.

“Law enforcement is really important to us for this event,” says Jones. “They help to raise significant funds for us.

“We’re definitely really excited for the opening ceremonies, and we love having spectators in the stands to support all of the athletes. Happy Valley has always been wonderful to us.”

The 3-day competition consisting of both individual, relay, and team events will take place at several different venues in State College and on the Penn State campus. Those locations include the IM Building on campus, the McCoy Natatorium, White Building, Northland Bowl and Recreation Center, Centre Hills Country Club, and the Sarni Tennis Center.

More than 2,000 athletes will be competing with the assistance of 750 coaches and nearly 1,500 community volunteers. The large number of volunteers to assist athletes is crucial, says Jones.

“I can’t stress how important it is that all of these individuals sacrifice their time to make the event possible. They’re really enabling all of the children and adults to have a wonderful experience.”

One of those people is volunteer coordinator Tommy Songer. A lifelong State College resident, he has been involved with the Special Olympics for 10 years, ever since a friend got him interested. Songer and a team of other coordinators work to recruit fellow volunteers and supervise events, making sure everything runs smoothly.

This weekend, he and his team will set up camp at a volunteer tent across from the Bryce Jordan Center, but the work begins much earlier. The past few days have kept the coordinators busy handling athlete credentials and medical forms, preparing food, and making more than 3,000 beds. Most of the athletes will be staying in various East Halls dormitories on Penn State’s campus.

Songer is always searching for new volunteers. In fact, people can still sign up for four hour shifts for the games. One of the most rewarding parts of the job for Songer is seeing past volunteers return each summer.

“It’s like a family,” Songer says. “Once you get someone, they’re always involved.”

“I’ve met people who have been helping out for 27-28 years, even before we started having it here in State College. It’s great seeing everyone come back.

"The athletes have been training long and hard for their events. We take pride in making sure that there are no injuries and all of the events go off without a hitch.”

One extra bit of work is laying out contingency plans to move sports inside in case of inclement weather. The Multi-Sport Facility on campus serves as a backup location for opening and closing ceremonies, but Songer and his team must be ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

“Some of them really take this seriously and are trying to qualify for nationals. It’s important that everything gets finished by Saturday,” Songer adds.

Participants who win a gold medal over the next few days will be eligible to advance to the National Games in 2014.

The National Games will take place next June in Mercer County, NJ. With New Jersey so close, a larger number of Pennsylvania athletes may be able to attend. Up to 232 athletes and 60 coaches from across the country are eligible to participate in the national games.

“This is definitely a big bonus for us,” said Jones. “The site rotates every four years, and sometimes a huge travel distance can push expenses and make things difficult, so the New Jersey location is definitely a benefit.”

Closing ceremonies are set for Saturday at Bigler Field beginning at 4:30 p.m. with Penn State football radio announcer Steve Jones serving as the emcee.

The entire event is free of charge, and spectators – in addition to volunteers – are invited to watch.

“It’s always great to see a large crowd in the stands,” said Jones.

Added Songer, “The whole thing is very inspiring. Myself and my team are proud to be a part of it.”

Additional information regarding the summer games can be found HERE.

Those participating in the games can keep tabs on the weather by clicking HERE for the latest AccuWeather forecast.

Drew Balis is a Penn State graduate, freelance reporter and frequent contributor to
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