SOSC 2016: My Honored Guest Experience

Special Olympics

Before we get into my experience this year, let’s flashback to April 2015, when I first became involved with SOI. I had recently started a job working for a production agency in Hollywood, CA – business development for Adore Creative. My first assignment was to attend the Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports and make some new business leads for the company. For me this was a great opportunity. I had only moved to Los Angeles from New York City three months prior to this conference, so two days of sports business panels at LA LIVE was a perfect introduction to the LA Sports community.

As I always do at panel conferences, I sat front and center, took copious notes, and asked questions when the various panels ended. On this day, I was lucky enough to be up close and personal to discussions by Disney CEO Bob Iger, LinkedIn founder Jeff Weiner (congratulations to him on selling to Microsoft) and many other powerful business leaders. However, the most impactful speaker I witnessed all day was a man by the name of Patrick McClenahan, who at the time was CEO and President of the LA 2015 Special Olympics Organizing Committee. Immediately following his panel, I walked up to Patrick, introduced myself, my company, and started to pitch creative ideas on the spot. The LA 2015 games were set to take place that summer, and the timing was perfect. Patrick responded immediately to my pitch, and wouldn’t you know it, three weeks later I found myself in Patrick’s office with my production company devising a plan to create a “legacy film” surrounding the games. The result of that work was a film that I am sure most of you saw. It’s called “Rise Up,” and it’s accompanied by the extremely talented Andra Day’s moving song of the same name. Some of you might’ve seen the film’s debut at the LA 2015 closing ceremonies over at USC Coliseum last summer. If you missed the debut, don’t worry! You can watch the film anytime if you search “Rise Up Special Olympics” on YouTube.

Fast forward back to the 2016 Games. I arrived at Cal State around 8:45 am on Saturday, June 11th and made my way to the Honored Guest pavilion. I checked in with Executive Administrator & Board Liaison Nicki Thierry, grabbed a bagel and some coffee (I was starving!) and sat down to eat at an open table. As I looked around, I noticed two men sitting directly across from me who, let’s just say, looked important! They were Special Olympics emcee Darren Horton (KTLA) and 1960 Olympics Gold Medalist Decathlete Rafer Johnson! Rafer was being honored on this day with the 2016 Humanitarian Award for his continued commitment to enriching the lives of Special Olympians in Southern California.

Darren Horton was kind enough to tell me about his experience volunteering with Special Olympics:

“It’s like a family reunion,” said Horton, who’s been volunteering with SOSC for nine years. “We come back every year and see the same faces. It’s such an important part of my life. It means so much to me to be here and witness these courageous athletes. The role I get to play as emcee of the opening ceremony is probably my favorite event that I do.”

Horton recalled the first time he got involved with SOSC.

“I remember thinking that I was giving something,” Horton recalled. “But when I got involved, and I met the community, the families who raise and care for SOSC athletes… I realized instantly that I was receiving more than I was giving. It’s a gift to be here.”

After breakfast, it was time for everyone to make their way to the opening ceremonies, where Horton introduced SOSC President Bill Shummard. Thousands of attendees filled the Cal State track and field facility to listen as Shummard gave his one-of-a-kind energy-filled opening speech, rousing the crowd to applause and jubilation. My favorite part of Bill’s speech was when he called the morning rain, “just a little liquid sunshine!”

The United States colors and SOSC flags were then presented by local law enforcement, and onto the stage came recording artist Koda Corvette to sing the national anthem. Koda, who is an up-and-coming 16-year-old singer, first became involved with SOSC last year, and she was very happy when she was asked to sing again this summer.

“It means so much to me to be here. I really appreciate this organization and everything they do for these athletes,” said Koda, who actually reached out to Special Olympics herself when she became aware of the organization last fall.

After the anthem, the SOSC torch was lit, which was followed by a special performance by Los Angeles-based comedian Andy Peters. Peters’ performance included an awesome moment when Andy got everyone to perform a “golf clap.”

Then it was time for the Breakfast of Champions, something I had been looking forward to all morning. There, alongside many famous athletes, including Jason Richardson and Ann Meyers Drysdale, SOSC Global Messengers would be honored for their commitment to the Games, alongside Rafer Johnson.

On my way to the breakfast, I stopped to talk to a few patrons of the Games. One man I met went by the name Manuel Gonzales. Manuel was wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat with some attractive pins on the brim. I found out that Manuel had no family in the Games, but he had been coming out to support the athletes for over 10 years. I also spent some time before the breakfast with three SOSC Global Messengers: Christopher Whitehead, Robert Kawough, and Eddie Mack, who all combined represent more than 50 years of SOSC experience. Partaking in that same conversation was 1980 and 1984 Olympic Women’s Rower Patricia “Patti” Spratlen Etem. Patti, who is perhaps the most pleasant person I’ve ever met, was wearing the most amazing Team USA warm-up sweater I’ve even seen! You should have seen it in person!

During the actual breakfast, I got to sit in with some SOSC families and hear their stories. One story that comes to mind was that of Richard Goens. Richard, who at 47 everyday battles ALS with a bright smile, has been involved with the Special Olympics since 1984, he says. He remembers the 1984 Olympics “like it was yesterday,” and, in emphatic fashion, supports Stephen Curry over LeBron James. He’s definitely not alone on that one!

After walking around the breakfast, taking some pictures and meeting some of the other families, I struck up a conversation with former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Moeller, who in 1962 became the youngest starting pitcher in Dodgers history at just 19 years and two months old. Moeller, who pitched in the 1966 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, was thrilled to be at the Games.

“Bill Shummard is a long time friend and I think the Special Olympics are absolutely incredible,” Moeller said. “To see these kids and athletes get an opportunity to participate in sports is just an incredible thing.”

Moeller also spoke of his dear friend Rafer Johnson’s involvement with SOSC.

“I’ve known Rafer since the 60s,” Joe said when asked about the progression of Special Olympics as compared to when he was a young man – before SOSC existed. “His (Rafer’s) involvement has been amazing. The opportunities that these athletes have today are night and day compared to back then.”

After the breakfast, I went over to the aquatics pool and saw some athletes working hard to complete laps in butterfly, backstroke and other events. It was especially awesome to see athletes team up together to complete in the relay swim race events.

After aquatics, I wanted to take in some track and field. On my way over to the track, I stopped by the Honored Guest tent again to sign up for medal ceremonies. I was very excited and a little nervous to present the medals. The athletes all trained so hard for this moment… I didn’t want to mess up! As I was signing up, I noticed former USC Football and NFL player Terrell Thomas with his family, talking to Special Olympics family members Estelle and Jay White. I stopped by to say hello to the beautiful family, and Terrell was happy to tell me about his involvement with SOSC.

“More than anything I’m honored and blessed to be part of such a great cause,” said the former professional football player, who won Super Bowl XLVI with the New York Giants. “It gives me motivation when I see these special athletes taking time to participate and work hard in these games. If anything, I’m looking up to them, and it’s great for my daughter (who is six) to see the athletes as well.”

Finally, the time came for me to present a medal to a Special Olympian. I didn’t get a chance to write down his name for this blog post, but I managed to get a picture (special thanks to Dave Galbraith of the California Highway Patrol for taking the photo!). If someone could please pass this article onto the athlete’s family, that would be greatly appreciated!

In this moment, when I looked in this athlete’s eyes, while we shook hands, after I placed the silver medal around his neck, it didn’t matter what our names were. In this moment I saw something that I’ve never seen before; I can’t quite describe it in words, but right then and there I knew that life, for both myself and for the athlete was as good as it gets.

After presenting the medal, I stayed around the medal tent ceremonies and passed out waters to the athletes who were waiting to be called to the podiums.

From there I made my way over to the Walter Pyramid, where the basketball games were taking place. I went way down to the court and watched the action. Three games going on at once, dozens (dare I say hundreds) of spectators cheering on the players, a great buzz was abound throughout the arena. As I watched the center court, I noticed next to me a young man cheering on Team Long Beach. His name was James, and he told me that his papers didn’t get signed in time, so he couldn’t participate in this year’s games. Nonetheless, here James was cheering on his teammates with as much passion as the starting point guard (who had a cross-over reminiscent of Allen Iverson, mind you!). James said that he didn’t want to be quoted in the article, so I’ll withhold his last name, but here’s hoping he reads this and understands how much fun I had watching the games with him and all the other athletes and families on this day!

7 - Eddie Mack and Patti Spratlen Etem Eddie Mack and Patti Spratlen Etem

12 - Terrell Thomas, Estelle White and Jay White Terrell Thomas, Estelle White and Jay White

9 - Richard Goens and Guadalepe Elizarraras at the Breakfast of Champions Richard Goens and Guadalepe Elizarraras at the Breakfast of Champions

5 - Manuel Gonzales has been supporting SOSC for five years and counting Manuel Gonzales has been supporting SOSC for five years and counting

8 - Eddie Mack, Christopher Whitehead and Robert Kawough Eddie Mack, Christopher Whitehead and Robert Kawough

6 - Lori Crawford, Greg Crawford and Ann Meyers Drysdale Lori Crawford, Greg Crawford and Ann Meyers Drysdale

1 - Darren Horton emcees the opening ceremony KTLA’s Derrin Horton MCees the opening ceremony

2 - Koda Corvette sings the national anthem Up-and-coming pop star Coda Corvette sings the national anthem.

My Honored Guest experience surpassed all expectations. Being around the SOSC 2016 Summer Games brought me back to World Games 2015… seeing the athletes of Southern California trying their best, competing, being teammates, and showing their determination, courage and joy was truly one of the most special moments in my life. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to be involved again with SOSC. Your passion is contagious! You all inspire me! I look forward to staying involved in SOSC for years to come! Thank you and see you all soon!

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Published by Adam Maher

Writer.