The automatic doors opened at the entrance to the Bethlehem YMCA, letting out a gentle blast of warm air to welcome athletes from across the region who were looking to escape the cold wind and snow.
They made their way to the indoor running track. Some bolted up the stairs, others wheeled into the elevator. For 15 people ranging in age from 12 to 56, they were not coming to the Y for just a simple workout; they had their eyes on a summer weekend when the state Special Olympics tournament comes to Siena College, Saturday, June 16 to Sunday, June 18.
Now, fast forward to a mild May evening at the Bethlehem High School track. The Special Olympics athletes have moved outside into the sunshine and warmth to continue their many weeks of training. Their work ethic is amazing and their smiles are contagious.
Bethlehem YMCA member Barry O’Keefe has been head coach of the Thunderbolts Special Olympics team for 10 years. After the Special Olympics track season moves through the local, regional, and finally the state meet at Siena, he will coach the local Special Olympics softball team.
“We have a great coaching staff and family participation,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve got folks that come from home, some live in community residences, and some folks that live independently on their own and we are looking for more participants.”
Christopher Williams started Special Olympics track nine years ago. His mother, Bonnie Hildenbrand of Fuera Bush, said: “I think it makes him feel great. I enjoy being here with him and working with him. He loves it. He interacts with the other folks and it’s great for him to get to know other people.”
Assistant Coach Jeff Touchette of Albany said the athletes, coaches and families are a tight-knit group. “It is inspiring,” Jeff said. “Everybody comes together and has each other’s back. Some of the older guys show the young kids what it means to compete. It’s good for them to get this kind of social interaction. It’s great to see them show up and give it their all.”
Shazear Wright of Albany has competed in the Special Olympics for two years and is doing the running long jump this year for the first time. He is excited about running, but cautions, “you have to stay in the lines.”
Maria Farnam of Rotterdam is both a parent and a Special Olympics coach. She appreciates the positive impact the Olympics have had on her daughter Taylor. “I love the Special Olympics. It changed my daughter’s life. She has a lot more self-confidence than she had before. She’s just a completely different kid. It’s awesome. Everybody accepts everybody. You don’t care if you come in first place or second place, everybody is happy.”
Coach O’Keefe thanked people in Bethlehem who have stepped up to help the Special Olympians, including Mark Thurman at the Bethlehem YMCA, Dave Swift, owner of Swifty’s, who held a fundraiser for the Special Olympics softball team so they could buy new uniforms, and the Town of Bethlehem for use of the fields at Elm Ave park softball fields.
The local Special Olympians’ extensive training may bring them medals and ribbons at competitions, but the rewards for results pale in comparison to the smiles, joy and laughter of the team’s journey along the way.