Practice makes perfect

Matt Aaron, president and CEO of Special Olympics, stepped onto the dias in a lecture hall at Lycoming College Saturday afternoon to say a few words of welcome to the athletes gathered there for training camp.

First, however, he took his cellphone out of his pocket.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” he said as he tapped on the screen. Then he trained the phone’s camera toward the audience and snapped a photo of the cheering crowd.

“I want to remember today because it’s a very special opportunity,” he said as he slipped the phone back into his pocket, to more applause.

Aaron was on hand to welcome the Special Olympics athletes, coaches, trainers and volunteers that would be using facilities at Lycoming and other sites in the Williamsport area for the next two days, as they prepared for the USA National Games in New Jersey this June.

It was the first time that Lycoming College has hosted a training camp, said Dr. Marisa Macy, one of the organizers of the event.

She was quick to give credit to the president of Lycoming College, Dr. Kent Trachte, for making the event happen.

“He was the impetus for it,” she said. “He was very, very supportive.”

The 206 athletes in attendance – all of whom have won gold medals at a previous events, including the World Summer Games – make up Team PA and hail from all corners of the state, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and everywhere in between.

Aaron said they were “a very select group.”

“Special Olympics PA has about 20,000 members,” he said. “That makes all of you in the top 1 percent.”

Aaron said that it would be the state’s largest delegation sent to a national games since 2006, when the first USA games were held at Iowa State University.

“These games are right in our backyard, being in New Jersey,” he said. “I’m glad we’ll be making such a good showing.”

National games are a way of qualifying for the international competitions that take place every two years.

The winter and summer games alternate, with the last summer games held in Athens in 2011 and winter games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2013. The next summer world games are scheduled for late July to early August of 2015 in Los Angeles.

At the end of his welcome, Aaron read from a recognition certificate from the state House of Representatives, a copy of which would be presented to each athlete at the banquet Saturday night.

Then it was time to get down to business.

In Lycoming’s Lamade Gymnasium and Recreation Center, the squeak of sneakers echoed off the high ceiling as the volleyball team took on blocking and serving drills.

“Nice hustle!” said Deb Kinney, a volleyball coach who has been volunteering with the Special Olympics in earnest for the past six years.

“I have a special needs child, and I love to see him keep active and healthy,” she said.

Working with the athletes is one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done, she said.

“Everyone who has a chance to be involved should do it,” she said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Lycoming senior Jenna Morgan, one of the nearly 100 students that volunteered as trainers, who was working with the basketball team.

Morgan, who played basketball for Lycoming, said she volunteered as a freshman and sophomore as well.

“I get to share something that I love with others,” she said.

Other student volunteers – members of the college football team – were busy in the weight room, helping athletes prepare for their powerlifting events, including Stephanie Walther, of Bucks County.

“I won three gold medals in Dublin,” she said, referring to the 2003 World Summer Games.

Walther, who competes in a total of six sports but likes lifting because “it’s a really good workout,” has been participating in Special Olympics since 1998.

The room was full of accomplished lifters – Mike Bordner, of Northumberland, won gold for a 555 1/2-pound deadlift at the Fall Festival event at Villanova University in November.

Bordner, who has been lifting for 23 years, currently is lifting between 575 and 580 pounds, but is “hoping to get up to 630 (pounds),” he said.

Training for the 12 events that will be held in New Jersey – aquatics, athletics (track and field), bocce, bowling, gymnastics, powerlifting, volleyball, tennis, soccer, softball, basketball and golf – continued for the rest of the afternoon Saturday, at numerous locations both on-campus and off. The tennis team spent the day at the West Branch Tennis Club in South Williamsport, while the bowling team practiced at Faxon Lanes.

The training day ended around 5 p.m., when athletes went back to their hotels to get ready for a banquet and dance to be held at Lamade.

Today will start with brunch in the Wertz Dining Hall, with 300 Lycoming students having given up their places – and their meals – for the athletes and coaches. Then, it’s back practice until the early afternoon.

It’s an intense two days, but it’s well worth the effort, and not just for the athletes.

Frederick Knauss, of Bethlehem City, is always amazed by what he gets out of working with Special Olympics competitors.

“It’s what they teach me,” Knauss, who has been volunteering as a swimming coach for eight years, said. “I teach them the skill, but I learn much more from them.”