By Briana Vannozzi
Michael Castello is what fellow teammates like to call an old pro.
“I do track and field, play tennis, I do bowling and floor hockey,” he said. A year round athlete.
He’s one of more than 2,500 athletes from around the state competing in this year’s Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games.
“They’re just amazing. They know everything about the game,” said Special Olympics New Jersey Coach Renee McCormac.
“It’s not easy to become more and more competent in a particular sport. These guys do it. They do it under the direction of volunteer coaches. They do it religiously, regularly and they come here and have the opportunity to celebrate that,” said Special Olympics New Jersey Interim President and CEO Mike Quinn.
It’s a weekend long event held at The College of New Jersey in Ewing. Athletes compete in seven sports. They have to play on a local level to qualify.
“There is nothing like the athletes. That’s what we’re all about, their enthusiasm. I have often said this is one of the truest forms of sport,” said Coach Thomas Monzo.
Hundreds of volunteers will help the games go off without a hitch. Like Taylor Reese who started volunteering during the fourth grade.
“They make me smile. I like seeing them smile. We have fun, joke around with them. It’s just really fulfilling for me,” Reese said.
Families like the Waldecks make long treks from all corners of the state. And they say it’s worth every minute.
“It’s hard to be a part of a team when you have any type of special needs so it’s awesome for them. They get down here, they stay in dorms together. They have all kinds of activities. They cheer each other on,” said mom Sandy Waldeck.
“When they win, it’s happy and when they don’t win it’s still happy,” said grandmother Dottie Balkema.
The athletes will have to tough out the heat for 56 matches throughout the day leading up to the official kickoff tonight — opening ceremonies.
“You got all those people cheering on for you, wishing you the best of luck for a great weekend. It’s a great way to start the weekend and the more people you have cheering, the better you play,” said Special Olympics athlete Tyler Waldeck.
“I’m hoping to see some of the Rutgers players. Last year I got Gary Nova’s autograph so I’m hoping, I’m wishing he was back,” said Peter Marshall of Ridgewood.
“At the end on Sunday you just sit here and you cry when they’re all getting their medals. No matter who is getting the medals,” said Waldeck.
“I’m going for the gold medals this year,” said Jacob Cohen of Florham Park.
The awards are a bonus; many of these athletes just love being a part of the team.
“Just being with friends and doing my best,” said Kevin McCormac.
Even if there is no medal, Jodi Hadam said, “I’ll be fine with it. As long as I have my friends around.”
Because, they take the Special Olympics oath to heart — let me win, but if I cannot win let me brave in the attempt.