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Special Olympics Spotlight on Princeton

By Anne Levin

For one week in the middle of June, Mercer County will be overrun with athletes. Some 3,500 of them—swimmers, golfers, bowlers, cyclists, runners, gymnasts, tri-athletes; softball, baseball, basketball, bocce and tennis players—will descend on the gymnasiums, arenas and playing fields of Princeton University, Rider University, the College of New Jersey, area private schools, and Mercer County Park. They will come from 50 states to compete in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. Four years in the planning, this gathering June 14-21 is a major coup for Special Olympics New Jersey, the Lawrenceville-based organization that provides year-round training in Olympic-type sports for youngsters with intellectual disabilities.

Tens of thousands of spectators are expected in the stands to witness these athletes in action. As with any sports competition, there will be triumph and disappointment. But through it all, the spirit of encouragement that defines the Special Olympics, and has changed the lives of children all over the world, will be the focus.

“The confidence gained in playing sport is amplified for our athletes, because they may not have the same opportunities to excel in academics or the arts,” said Marc Edenzon, CEO of Special Olympics New Jersey. “We’ve had athletes train and compete, and then be invited to join their high school swim teams. Others have gotten jobs with coaches. We’ve had athletes invited to participate in membership organizations. And this can all start with that confidence that comes with athletics.”

On a rainy weeknight in March, the sports complex of Special Olympics New Jersey’s headquarters on Princess Road was buzzing with young athletes training on treadmills and lifting weights. Some were paired with area college and high school students who are part of the organization’s Unified Sports program. Among the athletes was Divesh Ramani, a tall, handsome 18-year-old from West Windsor who will represent Team New Jersey in cycling during the USA Games.

Diagnosed with autism but high-functioning, Divesh has come a long way since his parents brought him to Special Olympics New Jersey five years ago. “People who saw him then and see him now are amazed,” said his father, who was waiting in the lobby outside the gym while Divesh worked out. “He has transformed. His self-esteem has been built up. He has learned skating, rowing, baseball, an indoor triathlon, and other sports. He has really come into himself.”

Last Christmas, Divesh delivered a speech to the Princeton Toastmasters’ club about the difference that organization and Special Olympics New Jersey have made in his life. “He couldn’t have done this without Special Olympics,” said his father, watching a video of the speech on his Smart Phone. “The sports, the people here, have given him so much confidence. It is wonderful to see.”

Other parents testify to remarkable results. “One of our proudest moments we’ve had with Colin was when he stood up independently for the first time,” said parent Kelli Tobin in Special Olympics New Jersey’s 2012 annual report. “He participated in his first Summer Games this past June and we couldn’t be more proud than to watch our little boy RUN down the track and cross the finish line.”

Edenzon, CEO of the organization since 1995, is himself the parent of a 16-year-old son with intellectual disabilities. “I started volunteering here in the 1970s” he said. “Having my son, I have a greater appreciation for how the organization can bring families together and provide opportunities for celebration. I watch the kids, and I watch their parents. Sport is the point of entry for so many things.”

The Special Olympics movement was the brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who opened a summer day camp in her suburban Washington back yard in 1962. Shriver was inspired by the tragic life of her sister Rosemary, who had been diagnosed as mentally retarded and subjected to a frontal lobotomy. Shriver had noticed, when Rosemary was young, that she was able to be an enthusiastic participant in sailing and other sports in which the athletic Kennedy family took part.

“Because of her sister, Eunice Shriver believed that persons with intellectual disability could excel in sport,” Edenzon says. “She always wanted to identify individuals who were underserved. She knew that there is no correlation between a person’s disability and what they can achieve in sport. There is a fraternity of sport, and participants are included in that.”

Shriver’s efforts took root, and the first international Special Olympics Games were held in 1968 in Soldier’s Field, Chicago. Three years later, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave the Special Olympics official approval as one of only two organizations authorized to use the name “Olympics” in the country. The first International Special Olympics Winter Games were held in February 1977, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. More than 500 athletes competed, in front of the cameras of CBS, ABC, and NBC television networks.

Today, the Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to more than 4.2 million athletes in 170 countries. Special Olympics New Jersey, which started in 1968, is one important cog in the wheel.

“We submitted a bid to host the 2014 games because we know New Jersey Special Olympics is a solid organization and we could provide the resources,” says Edenzon. “We thought we could win the bid, and we did. We won over Boston. So this is a wonderful opportunity for us. We don’t have a chance to tell our story every day, and this means heightened awareness. It will be a vehicle not only to raise funds, but for our athletes to gain acceptance into the community, beyond the playing field.”

High on the list of priorities at Special Olympics New Jersey is the Unified Sports program, which recently launched a new initiative pairing the athletes with students at Rowan University and has continued with Rider, Montclair State, The College of New Jersey, and high school and middle schools. During the USA Games, athletes from the program will be joined on the playing fields at TCNJ as a demonstration of how barriers can be broken down by sports.

“At Rowan, it’s now woven into the fabric of the community,” said Edenzon. “We look at unified sports as an entry into acceptance into the community. We’re trying to provide opportunities for inclusion in all levels of play. We believe that’s the future of the movement.”

In both individual and team sports, Special Olympics athletes follow the same rules as in a regular sports program. “This is so the athletes can transition into actual play,” Edenzon said. “And it also allows them to play with their cousins when they come over.”

Edenzon has a $600,000 budget for transportation, accommodation, and other necessities. Area hotels are booked. Somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volunteers will be coaching, keeping score, and helping with meals.As part of a program called Healthy Young Athlete, pediatric specialists will be on hand to provide free consultations. Teenagers from all over the country are scheduled to attend to learn strategies for creating inclusive sports programs in their schools and communities. They’ll be bunking on the campus of The Lawrenceville School.

“We think attendance is going to be particularly high because so many states are within driving distance of New Jersey,” Edenzon said. “There will be an incredible level of festivity in the area that week.

The games will begin June 14 with an opening ceremony at Newark’s Prudential Center before moving to Mercer County. The closing ceremony on June 21 will be at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton. But once the celebrations are over and the athletes from outside the Garden State have returned home, the training will continue at Special Olympics New Jersey’s facility on Princess Road.

“This place is always hopping,” said Edenzon. “It’s open to everyone. It’s a great way to educate the community. We’re the best-kept secret in Mercer County.”


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