Angela Proenza says it’s the smile and confident wave from her daughter Alondra Wetzel that makes the Special Olympics so magical.
“I like that there’s a camaraderie. You know, you have a lot of other families who come out here with students and children with similar disabilities. It gets them to interact a little bit more and come out of their shell,” Proenza said.
Wetzel was among more than 250 athletes with intellectual disabilities that participated in the 51st annual Winter Special Olympics.
“We have speed skating at Stockholm today, we have snowshoeing and cross-country skiing at a new venue, but alpine and snowboarding are here at Mountain Creek today. Many of our athletes here today could be in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, I mean we have some athletes in some sports who are in their 60s and 70s. So they are here today on the slopes, staying in hotels, being a part of this. It’s free of charge to our athletes and that’s all due to great community support, corporate support, fundraising that we do,” said Heather Anderson, president and CEO of the Special Olympics of New Jersey.
Besides cheering relatives, all of the athletes that competed were accompanied by a volunteer ski escort. Twelve-year-old Kacey says he enjoyed the extra company while waiting.
“Well, the stressful part of it was waiting in the line,” he said.
Ski escort Nick Bauman says he thinks Kacey is something pretty special.
“I never really would have talked to him otherwise, but I got to know him better and it’s a great feeling that I am helping out and for a great cause,” said Bauman.
Coaches say the Special Olympics doesn’t just give athletes something to look forward to every year — it also gives them an opportunity to shine.
“You look at these kids and everyone thinks that they can’t do anything and they come here and they excel and they come away with gold medals,” said coach Sam Scarafile.
The two-day event concluded with a medal ceremony. Forty-year-old gold medalist Karen Bruno says the competition is a judgement-free zone.
“It’s important to me because it lets me show what athletes can do and what I can do and not be judged. A lot of practice and confidence in yourself and doing what you can do,” Bruno said.
Anderson says the organization is now preparing for the Special Olympics Summer Sports, which includes basketball and bowling.