Jan. 25, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech athletes know all about being the subject of public adulation.
On Friday night, they relished their chance to be part of the cheering crowd.
The heroes on this occasion were the approximately 1,500 athletes taking place in the Special Olympics Indoor Winter Games.
The event has become a staple on the Georgia Tech community service landscape.
“It started very small scale, I want to say four years ago,” said Director of Total Person Support Services Leah Thomas. “Someone from Special Olympics called and wanted some Georgia Tech athletes to serve as grand marshals for the Opening Ceremonies. They enjoyed it so much that this has become our second project (in addition to The Annual Michael Isenhour Toy Drive) we commit ourselves to every year.”
Four years ago Thomas went to her “go-to” athletes. Now just about all the athletes can’t wait to go and participate.
“It’s one of those things that we kind of expect every year. This time of year it’s time for Special Olympics,” said A-Back Roddy Jones. “We have a good time cheering the athletes on and helping in any way that we can.”
“This is the third year that I’ve been doing it,” added junior outfielder Jessica Sinclair. “It’s probably my favorite community service. It’s great seeing [the athletes’] love for life.”
On Friday night, the festivities got underway, with approximately 75 Georgia Tech athletes from as many as nine different sports escorting the athletes from all over Georgia into Hudgins Hall. Also in attendance was former Yellow Jacket and current Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who helped out Friday night at the Opening Ceremonies and Saturday morning at the skating event.
Once the athletes were seated, the hour-long ceremony proceeded with the completion of the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR), a nearly 1,000-mile journey over two weeks, and the lighting of the Olympic torch.
While the flame signaled the beginning of the Games, the fun was only getting started.
“They clear the floor of all the chairs, they turn on music and just let everybody go to town,” said Sinclair. “The whole softball team was there and we were all dancing. The athletes will come up to you and they’ll ask you to dance and just joke around, Some of them are actually very good dancers and showed us up.
“They’ll come and they’ll tell you, ‘Hey, I’m playing softball. Do you want to come up and watch me play softball?'” she added. “They’re just so excited that they’re getting the chance to do it and they’re meeting us.”
“A lot of people come up and talk to you and ask you about what we do at Tech,” Jones added. “It’s just a fun experience to get out and interact.”
The next morning, the competition heated up. Tech’s athletes worked primarily at the roller skaing event, for which Assistant Director of Game Operations, Cheryl Watts, has become the volunteer coordinator.
Sinclair admitted that she was blown away by the athleticism of some of the athletes, especially skater Scott King.
“He is probably the best roller skater I’ve seen,” she said. “We went and talked to him after his race and he was so much fun. He gave out his autograph, smiling.
“I’m sure he’s the biggest ladies man around the Special Olympics,” she added with a laugh. “He is really good. He finished above and beyond everybody else and it was impressive. We were cheering like crazy. He took off and he could have beaten any of the Georgia Tech athletes on roller skates. It was exciting.”
That excitement, the Olympians’ attitude in competition and lack of attitude away from it makes the event extra special.
“They’re so innocent, and they don’t have any worries,” said Sinclair. “They’re just there to play the game they love and just have fun. Seeing them jumping around, dancing not caring what anybody thinks about them, having the biggest smiles on their faces, so proud that they’re going to get a medal tomorrow. They’re so excited.”
“To see how they get back up every time they fall down, no matter what, they’re always in good spirits,” raved Jones. “They always congratulate each other on victories and even the winners congratulate the people that didn’t win. It’s just a very pure competition that’s just fun for everyone.”
“I think my favorite moment was the first medals that were given out, when the winner was presented with the gold medal,” he said. “It was a kid who was like 10 years old and he got to stand up on stage and get a gold medal. It was awesome. Just to see his reaction and how much it meant to him.”
The Special Olympics mean enough to Jones that even though he graduated in December — he’s begun taking MBA classes — he plans on continuing to stay involved.
“I definitely am, in some way, shape or form going to try to stay involved in Special Olympics,” he said. “I know Leah and I will be in contact. She’ll always keep me informed about what’s going on and especially when the Special Olympics are.”
Sinclair, who will graduate next year, has similar ideas.
“[The athletes] have so much enthusiasm,” she said. “They just are out there to have a great time and they do. They’re the friendliest, most innocent people I’ve ever met. If I could work it every year I would. It’s a blast.”
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