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Special Olympics kick off in State College

by on June 05, 2014 5:00 PM

Joseph Reteguiz was delighted with his first place finish in the 100-meter medley swim event as the Special Olympics got underway Thursday afternoon.

His victory continues a personal tradition of athletics Joseph that started at age three. His eventual goal is to compete in the national and global Special Olympics.

This is the 27th consecutive year the Olympics have found its summer home in Happy Valley, says Special Olympics Pennsylvania spokeswoman Nicole Jones.

“Everyone in Happy Valley has been so instrumental in having these successful games,” Jones says. “After 27 years I don’t think we can imagine being anywhere else.”

Jones says the three-day event is mostly located on the Penn State campus, with the golf and bowling events held elsewhere, and features over 2,000 athletes from across the state ranging from young children to senior citizens competing in nine sports: aquatics, athletics, basketball, bowling, equestrian events, golf, gymnastics, softball and tennis.

She says that the participating athletes represent a wide range of intellectual disabilities ranging from ADHD, like Reteguiz, to dyslexia and bipolar disorder, like Sian Emerson, another swimmer competing at the Special Olympics.

"None of that matters when you’re swimming,” Emerson says. “I feel comfortable in the water.”

Event Director Ed Gannon says the Special Olympics athlete oath asks the competitors to strive for victory but to be brave in the attempt, regardless of the outcome. Many athletes have taken this to heart, often caring about the scores and performances of their friends more than their own, he says.

"There is a purity of competition here that you don’t see in many other places,” Gannon says.

A core group of 65 volunteers from central Pennsylvania begins planning the event each September, with the goal of making the games bigger and better each year. Following the planning stages, 1,600 volunteers help ensure the event runs smoothly.

State College resident Barbara Puzycki is volunteering for the Special Olympics for the first time through the Centre County Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Though she enjoys helping with the event, the real reward is getting to meet the athletes competing.

“People say that they can’t do the things they want to do, but they can, they’re here to prove it and it’s wonderful,” she says.

Kacie Conklin, a tennis player with Down syndrome, has been swinging a racket since she was 10 years old. She competed in the olympics for the second time Thursday, and feels confident that she’ll return home to Huntingdon County with two first place medals – an improvement over her first and second place medals from last year.

"It’s nerve-racking out there at first, but after a couple minutes you adjust pretty quickly,” Conklin says.

Conklin’s head coach Erin McManamony says she first got involved with coaching special education students because many aspiring athletes with intellectual disabilities didn’t have the same opportunities for sports that other athletes have.

"Life for some of these individuals may be difficult when others don’t understand intellectual disabilities,” Jones says. “[The Special Olympics are] a platform by which they can blossom and grow as an individual.”

The games continue through Saturday evening’s closing ceremonies, with multiple events each day. Click here for a full schedule of events.

Joe Reteguiz has been watching his son Joseph swim since he became the first swimmer with a disability to make his school’s varsity swim team. Reteguiz says there’s one thing he asks people to remember about the athletes in this weekend’s event.

"They don’t have disabilities,” Reteguiz says. “They’re special people.”

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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