By Briana Vannozzi
The countdown is on. One month from today more than 80,000 people will embark on the Garden State — including 3,500 athletes — to compete in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. It’s a rare opportunity to showcase the abilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Today officials at Barnabas Health — one of the founding partners for the games — held a small kickoff ceremony.
“It will be a tough ticket to get, even though it’s free,” said Thomas Varga, a senior vice president for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. “We got the games here for three reasons. One is we are in the media capital of the world. Two, we had a new paradigm in how we would fund these games, and three, in our bid book we had letters from more than 100 companies in New Jersey who said, ‘We want these games in New Jersey and we will support you.’”
More than 16 athletic events will make up the week-long competition, including track and field, softball, gymnastics and aquatics. Varga says the opening ceremony, which will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark, is one of the most moving parts of the event. Athletes from all 50 states will march into the stadium followed by a lighting of the torch and the Olympic oath.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush. It feels good to see that everyone is there supporting me,” said Keith Fisher, a track and field competitor for the New Jersey team.
Committee members said it took more than four years to clinch the bid as a host state. It’s just one in a string of major national events to be held in New Jersey recently, including the Super Bowl and the World Wrestling Entertainment.
Barry Ostrowsky is the president and CEO of Barnabas Health and says getting involved was a “no brainer.”
“Over the years we’ve had a number of people at Barnabus Health involved with Special Olympics. When the opportunity presented itself to support bringing the national games to New Jersey, we couldn’t resist,” he said.
Out of the expected 10,000 volunteers, Barnabas employees will make up more than 10 percent.
“Frankly I’ve never seen anything in our organization that has galvanized the spirit of our colleagues like being involved in the 2014 games,” said Ostrowsky.
The majority of events will be held in Mercer County and officials expect the state to see an influx of more than $115 million in revenue.
Joetta Clark Diggs, a four-time Olympian and spokesperson for Special Olympics, says this is a life-changing event for the athletes.
“I’ll tell you I’ve gone to a lot of these events and the passion and enthusiasm that they are showing are the same things that we [Olympians] show,” she said. “They may not run as fast, but they train just as hard and they are just as happy to get on that victory stand.”
“When you see it in the athletes’ faces, that’s all you need to see. This will be the pinnacle of many of their lives and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it,” said Varga.