Special Olympics Returns to Hudson Valley for the 2017 Winter Games

Article by Megan McCormack and Kelly Smith

The Mid-Hudson Civic Center is packed. So packed, in fact, that I cannot find a seat. It’s the weekend of the New York Special Olympics where almost 900 athletes compete and show us all what true teamwork is.

The two-day event began on February 18, starting with an opening ceremony. Local radio personality Joe Daily emceed the ceremony.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a handful of volunteers that encouraged me to go visit the Fan Station, where fans made supportive posters for the athletes. I happily obliged and helped a young fan complete his poster that read, “I am so proud of you.” The smile on my face could not have been bigger.

A few supportive signs that fans made upon entering the open ceremony.

Daily opened the event by asking if anyone had seen the flag representing the Special Olympics on the Mid-Hudson Bridge. “That flag is part of history now,” he exclaimed to the crowd. “Only three flags have ever flown on the Mid-Hudson Bridge. We’re really making history.”

The atmosphere in the arena was electric. There was a constant flow of support and cheers as Daily continued with his opening remarks.

“The pure joy of sportsmanship will be proven time and time again this weekend,” Daily said. And he was right.

The crowd was on their feet as the Parade of Athletes began. Each athlete made their way to their seats, high-fiving the line of police officers that stretched along the aisle. The crowd erupted upon the entrance of the athletes from the Hudson Valley region. The excitement and radiance in each athlete’s eyes was remarkable.

The athletes on their feet as the Color Guard presents the American flag.

As the athletes and crowd settled, the entertainment didn’t stop. The National Anthem began and the athletes took it upon themselves to sing along and finish strong by starting a USA chant throughout the arena.

“This really is the experience of a lifetime for them,” said fan Allison Ludlow. “Their energy is so high and their excitement is contagious.” Ludlow, a Hudson Valley resident, attended the ceremonies strictly for support.

“It’s such an amazing event. People are crazy for not coming,” she continued.

As I walked around, it seemed that this was a common trend. Fans attended from all over the Hudson Valley simply to support the athletes and the event. But the opening ceremony was just the beginning. As the crowd trickled out of the arena and opened the doors to the winter air, the athletes were preparing for tomorrow. Events included snowshoeing, alpine skiing, floor hockey, and figure skating — the last of which Groundhog journalist Megan McCormack was able to step in and report.

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Cut to 10 a.m. Saturday morning. The fans filling the bleachers overlooking the Civic Center’s skating rink could not have been more energetic. As I struggled to find a seat, the first skater hit the ice to an eruption of cheers that made me stop and turn around to watch it myself.

According to the schedule taped to the wall, this was the “compulsories” portion, containing “singles and dance levels.” Following this event (and lunch) was the free style preliminaries, dance preliminaries, and then the finals of each.

I watched as first Peter, then Joe, then Ryan — a local who had never before participated in the Special Olympics — took turns flying around the arena, zigzagging and twisting about in a manner that only skilled skaters can.

Then came the girls, swirling past my eyes with gem-studded outfits and compelling smiles, despite the bitter chill and the early morning. Nothing could get them down, not even a little slip on the ice. Every participant was made to feel at home, even though many athletes had traveled out of their way to get here, with the exception of the local boys — Johnny and Ryan — of whom the crowd was certainly very proud.

The dancing round was something else entirely. Fans clapped along as the likes of DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Frozen’s “Let It Go” blared through the speakers and the athletes performed their routines. Accompanied by the incessant chants and cheers from the stands, the atmosphere formed a song of its own, a fluid and constant waterfall of support and encouragement.

By all measures, it was a proper competition, and everyone was clearly giving it their all. Yet something was different. The athletes were sitting next to each other, interacting and sharing stories. But more than that, they were sharing successes. The joy after the completion of a beautiful routine wasn’t a solitary thing, reserved for the athlete only. Rather, it was shared by every fan and every athlete on the sidelines watching.

Contestant Corrie finishing one of her routines.

When one athlete came off, another athlete was ready to hug them or high-five them, congratulating them on a job well done while simultaneously prepping for their own routine. None of the diva behavior or stolid faces of imperviousness you might see in an ordinary competition. For the athletes Saturday morning, it was simple. It was never about winning or losing, better or best; it was about showcasing and appreciating everyone’s talents.

The event’s announcer said it best after watching two contestants, one fresh off the ice and one about to step on, embrace in a hug, noting, “These special Olympians can teach you a lot about spirit… trust me.” Something so stunningly simple and yet so difficult to find, there was certainly no shortage of encouragement and sportsmanship at the ice rink that day.

Contestants Ryan and Peter accepting their gold and silver medals, respectively
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