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Game of Golds

Today, exactly one year ago, I was at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. This year I attended the not much less spectacular Game of Golds, a.k.a. the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games. They took place at Towson University in Towson, Md. from Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 9. Here are some of my favorite moments:

Opening Ceremony in SECU Arena at Towson University, MD on Friday, June 7, 2019. Over the course of three days 1500 athletes and Unified Partners will compete in athletics, softball, cheerleading, bocce or swimming.

Opening Ceremony in SECU Arena at Towson University, MD on Friday, June 7, 2019. Over the course of three days 1500 athletes and Unified Partners will compete in athletics, softball, cheerleading, bocce or swimming.

Two athletes carry the Olympic torch to its final destination in front of Unitas Stadium at Towson University, MD at the end of the Opening Ceremony. They are surrounded by Law Enforcement Torch Runners and athletes. The torch will remain lit until the Summer Games are completed.

Two athletes carry the Olympic torch to its final destination in front of Unitas Stadium at Towson University, MD at the end of the Opening Ceremony. They are surrounded by Law Enforcement Torch Runners and athletes. The torch will remain lit until the Summer Games are completed.

An athlete rejoices upon completion of the 50 meter freestyle event in the pool of Burdick Hall at Towson University, MD on Friday June 7, 2019.

An athlete rejoices upon completion of the 50 meter freestyle event in the pool of Burdick Hall at Towson University, MD on Friday June 7, 2019.

High jumper successfully completes a challenging jump at Unitas Stadium , Towson University, MD on Sunday June 9, 2019.

High jumper successfully completes a challenging jump at Unitas Stadium , Towson University, MD on Sunday June 9, 2019.

Athlete giving it her very best at the long jump event at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete giving it her very best at the long jump event at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Javelin thrower being watched by a volunteer referee at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. The staging area for all track and field events is top left and the awards area is top right.

Javelin thrower being watched by a volunteer referee at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. The staging area for all track and field events is top left and the awards area is top right.

Great catch during the final softball game on the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Great catch during the final softball game on the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Howard County coaches and athlete watching the game from the sidelines at the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Howard County coaches and athlete watching the game from the sidelines at the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A few of the many supporters of the Summer Games at Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 19, 2019.

A few of the many supporters of the Summer Games at Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 19, 2019.

Athletes taking off for the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium of Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athletes taking off for the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium of Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Short distance runners on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Short distance runners on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete running the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete running the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Runner completing the final leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Runner completing the final leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Judges and volunteers applauding a deaf runner at the finish line on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Judges and volunteers applauding a deaf runner at the finish line on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete high-fiving a law enforcement officer after receiving a silver medal from him in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete high-fiving a law enforcement officer after receiving a silver medal from him in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Excited athlete shaking hands with a law enforcement officer upon receiving a 6th place ribbon reading “skill, courage, sharing, joy” in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Excited athlete shaking hands with a law enforcement officer upon receiving a 6th place ribbon reading “skill, courage, sharing, joy” in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A very happy athlete in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A very happy athlete in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Be Brave, Include and Lead the Way!

Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle - July, 2018

In early July, more than 4,000 athletes and coaches and 15,000 volunteers descended on Seattle to participate in the Special Olympics USA Games. Total attendance across 14 venues was 101,500.  I was very lucky to be one of them as part of Special Olympics Maryland’s media team.

I have hesitated to write a story about the Games for several reasons. How can any words describe the magnitude of the experience, the passion among the athletes, and abilities of the intellectually-disabled?  How can the joy, camaraderie, friendliness, kindnesses, or all-around “having each other’s back” feelings be translated into words that do them justice? How can I explain what the entire experience has done to me on a personal level: old friendships reaffirmed, new friendships made, that feeling of belonging - not only in the media team or in Team MD athletes, coaches, family and friends but also a belonging among the 101,500 USA Games attendants?

As I spent many hours contemplating what to write, the Special Olympics Athlete Oath kept popping up in my thoughts:

Let me win.

But if I cannot win,

Let me be brave

in the attempt.

This perfectly describes all the athletes at the Games: there were many attempts made and they were all brave!  As so many touching and inspirational stories have been told in the media outlets, suffice it to say that witnessing this firsthand was an unforgettable experience.  What an incredible example the athletes set for all of us!

Another Special Olympics motto that really appeals to me comes to mind:  Choose to Include. We need to include and welcome people with intellectual disabilities in our society! And I saw that happening at the USA Games on a very large scale. Of course, volunteers, coaches, family, friends, and other supporters were there to love and celebrate the athletes. But everyone else connected with the Games - camera operators and photographers, groundskeepers, vendors, sponsors and students on the campus where the Games took place - actively appreciated and included the Special Olympics community.  And many good people of Seattle welcomed the athletes and their supporters with open arms and showed genuine interest in the Games and the people involved.

But the athletes themselves  are the best model of Choose to Include, extending inclusion not just to their fellow athletes and teammates, but also to all of us cheering them on. They let us into their lives; they shared their brave attempts and accomplishments with us. They gave us their friendship and love.  For all of that, I cannot thank the Special Olympics athletes enough.

Once again, the Special Olympics athletes are leading the way: in their Inclusion Revolution.  It’s not just them but ANYONE who is different in any way or is facing mental disabilities who needs to be included.  This is the Inclusion Pledge:


                                           I pledge. To look for the lonely. The isolated. The left out. The challenged. The bullied.

I pledge. To overcome the fear of difference. And replace it with the power of inclusion.

I #ChooseToInclude

 

As I am not an eloquent writer or speaker I’d like to stop my thoughts here and show some photos. Of course I took thousands of them and many show the athletic accomplishments but I just picked a few photos capturing the spirit of my experience.

Special Olympic athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium Alaska Airlines Field in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Special Olympic athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium Alaska Airlines Field in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics, addresses the crowd during the Opening Ceremony of the USA Games on the Alaska Airlines Field of Washington University’s Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics, addresses the crowd during the Opening Ceremony of the USA Games on the Alaska Airlines Field of Washington University’s Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Athletes approaching the finish line at the 100 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Athletes approaching the finish line at the 100 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Runner finishes the 400 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Runner finishes the 400 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Golf coach helps his athlete stretch and relax at the tee box before her first shot at the Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond, Washington.

Golf coach helps his athlete stretch and relax at the tee box before her first shot at the Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond, Washington.

Tennis coach joins her athlete while he is warming up for his match at the Bill Quillian Tennis Stadium of the University of Washington.

Tennis coach joins her athlete while he is warming up for his match at the Bill Quillian Tennis Stadium of the University of Washington.

Tight race at the 50 meter breaststroke in the King County Aquatic Center in Seattle, Washington.

Tight race at the 50 meter breaststroke in the King County Aquatic Center in Seattle, Washington.

Team Maryland player attempts to score and Team Florida goalkeeper deflects the ball on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland player attempts to score and Team Florida goalkeeper deflects the ball on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland and Florida supporters at a very exciting game played on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle. After a fierce battle team Florida won!

Team Maryland and Florida supporters at a very exciting game played on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle. After a fierce battle team Florida won!

Team Maryland goalkeeper succesfully stops a goal on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland goalkeeper succesfully stops a goal on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Athlete gets a high-five from his nephew who wears a t-shirt with the words: “My Uncle Rocks!” Husky Track University of Washington.

Athlete gets a high-five from his nephew who wears a t-shirt with the words: “My Uncle Rocks!” Husky Track University of Washington.

Athletes are gathered on the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Athletes are gathered on the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Cheerleaders performing for all Special Olympics athletes at the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Cheerleaders performing for all Special Olympics athletes at the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Maryland powerlifter competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter after competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter after competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland bowlers at the bowling competition taking place at Kenmore Lanes in Kenmore, Washington.

Maryland bowlers at the bowling competition taking place at Kenmore Lanes in Kenmore, Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the beginning of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the beginning of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball player on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball player on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the end of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington! They won!

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the end of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington! They won!

 

 

 

All Special Olympics USA Games Team Maryland photos here:  SPECIAL OLYMPICS

 

 

 

Super Plunger Mary Kokosko

Mary Kokosko!

She's a teacher, she's an organizer and fundraiser, she's a smiler!  She's very involved with people with disabilities and has been since she participated in the best-buddy program during her high school years.  She's outgoing, charming and full of life!  But most of all she's an amazing Super Plunger!  

This weekend the Special Olympics Maryland Polar Bear Plunges took place at Sandy Point State Park , Md.  The events kicked off with a Cool School Plunge on Thursday, followed by a Police, Firefighter/EMS and Military Plunge and a Corporate Plunge on Friday and culminating in three gigantic Polar Bear Plunges for everybody else on Saturday.  

Mary didn't just do one of these plunges.  Not even two or three.  She  probably plunged more than 25 times this year (but I actually have to ask her because I think it's even more than that).  And she hasn't  done that just this year but she's been at it for 8 years!  

On Thursday, Mary plunged with 270 students and 12 teachers (that's 7 school buses full) of South River High.  She got them there, she inspired and recruited the kids, she organized many fundraisers, she took care of the required forms and waivers and she collected the money. This year the school raised $ 34,000 and were the #1 team (again).  In total the school, over a 7 year period, has raised about $ 250,000.  And then after the Cool School Plunge, she came back on Friday to start super plunging:  a plunge every hour during a period of 24 hours.

I met Mary during the Super Plunge in 2014;  the coldest plunge EVER, when the waves in the Chesapeake Bay kept bringing in ice through which the plungers had to find their way!  (For those interested, here are some photos:  http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Polar-Bear-Plunge-12514.) It didn't discourage her though.  This year was her 5th time as a super plunger (7th time overall, including the cool school plunge).  She teamed-up with South River High student and student liaison Caroline Boyd whose father, Don Boyd, is the captain of the Super Plunge Team.

This Saturday Mary and I sat down for a few moments to talk. This was after plunge # 23 at around 8:15 AM and she was tired!  Very tired.  The "dark side of the moon" plunges (between 1 and 5AM) had been hard. When I asked her if she was planning to continue being a super plunger in the next few years she was a little hesitant.  "As long as her body would let her", she said!  "It takes more and more time recovering..."

Mary, the following photos are worth a thousand words, all illustrating  what an amazing, inspiring, funny and kind plunger you are!  Thank you for all that you do!  I have a feeling you'll continue doing this for a few more years!

And to all super plungers:  you all deserve to be the subject of a blog.  You are all so, so special.  Thank you for showing me the way!  Your photos are here: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Super-Plunge-27-2817.

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