After the Flame of Hope was lit on Thursday’s opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics Michigan Summer Games, Central Michigan University was primed to host the weekend-long festivities and competition the helped display the essence of human compassion and brotherhood.
As the games began on Friday morning, that spirit of connectedness carried on throughout the day. Together, the bright sun, warm temperature and the boiling enthusiasm of the athletes made the conditions right for yet another memorable year for volunteers and family members.
“It’s all smiles all the time,” said Whitmore Lake sophomore Kelsey Fearer. “It’s really fun just seeing how happy the athletes get no matter what place they’re in. They’re always supporting each other too, even those from different areas. It’s awesome to see.”
Fearer has been volunteering with Special Olympics Michigan for four years. She said the most fulfilling part of her work with the organization is being able to interact one-on-one with the athletes.
“When you make a connections with an athlete, you can’t help but want to come back and see them every year,” Fearer said. “They’ll remember you year after year, it really means something. I just fell in love with it on the first day because you can’t be angry or upset around the athletes.”
For each of the athletes participating in almost every athletic facility on the south end of CMU’s campus – from track and field events to swimming – the sounds of jovial applause and genuine encouragement motivated them as they moved from one event to the next.
At the Lyle Bennett Outdoor Track, where a crowd of volunteers stood at the finish line to cheer on athletes as they crossed, the energy of the combined track events was palpable. Met with high-fives and hugs, almost every athlete was impelled to pick up a burst of speed on the final stretch of their race.
“I was neck and neck with another kid and I turned on the jets at the last moments and passed him,” said Aaron Crooks of Grand Rapids, who won a gold medal in the 400m dash.
Crooks said he was running for his deceased girlfriend and her family. He has been running in the Special Olympics for five years.
“I love it every year,” he said. “We come and win these (medals) every year for them.”
Winning wasn’t everything to all of the athletes.
Take Matthew Kemper, of Mackinaw City, for example. Kemper said he was pleased with his strong second-place finish, and despite running out of fuel at the end of his race, he can now “retire happy.”
While younger competitors were in the majority, the games hosted athletes of all ages. Ruth Strien, 62, of St. Joseph, won a bronze medal in singles bowling.
Strien has been competing for nine years and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. She said she enjoys the Special Olympics because of all the new people she gets to meet.
Most athletes wore colored t-shirts designating their home region. By the end of the day, polychromatic groups of athletes roamed the campus grounds and proudly displayed their medals.
It was likely they had all met for the first time that day.
“It’s so heartwarming to see the kids,” said Shelby Township native Marisa Vaglica. “It’s their day, it’s all for them so everyone is here to support them. I’m sure that they feel special today.”
Vaglica was volunteering with her hometown friend, Shelby Township junior Kiersten Vendittelli. Their favorite memory from Friday was cheering on a person with a disability from their high school.
“I’ll come every year, it’s a great experience,” Venditelli said. “I love seeing how happy they are to see people cheer them on and tell them they did a good job. They’re so appreciative of that.”
As the day came to a close, Plymouth-Canton resident Kyle Albert was able to break down the perceived kinship forged among the athletes and volunteers into a simple mantra.
“Cheer on your teammates and support them, that’s your team,” he said.