photo by Holly Magnuson
photo by Holly Magnuson

Friendships and Memories Made at Special Olympics

by Rachel White

After two weeks of thrilling competition, the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015 culminated on Sunday, August 2 with a closing ceremony at the L.A. Coliseum celebrating the accomplishments of 6,500 athletes and 2,000 coaches representing 165 countries. The largest sports and humanitarian event this year, the World Games left an indelible mark on the more than 30,000 volunteers and 500,000 spectators who witnessed the incredible determination, ability, goodwill, and joy of these remarkable Olympians. As a Host Town participant, Azusa Pacific University shared in this momentous, global celebration, welcoming the Special Olympics South Africa delegation to campus and sending volunteers to assist at the games resulting in new friendships and lasting memories.

On July 21, 91 South African delegates received their first introduction to American hospitality with a warm welcome from APU, which served as the athletes’ home away from home for three days. In advance of their arrival, APU and St. Lucy’s Priory High School volunteers decorated Trinity Hall dorm rooms with brightly painted welcome signs created by APU students who took part in the South Africa Semester. Volunteers greeted the athletes, carried their luggage, and showed them to their rooms where gift bags, snacks, and drinks awaited. “After traveling 14,500 miles from Johannesburg to Los Angeles, through Hong Kong, the delegates deeply appreciated these simple gestures that let them know we were happy to have them stay with us,” said Andrew Barton, special assistant to the Office of the President who coordinated the South Africa Special Olympics visit.

The welcome festivities continued the next morning when APU, and the Host Town cities of Azusa, Duarte, and Glendora, gathered together on Dillon Field for a ceremony celebrating the South African athletes, coaches, and volunteers. Amid a crowd of excited fans waving South African and American flags, the delegates entered the field greeted by loud cheers, applause, high-fives, and hugs before taking their seats as guests of honor. APU Acting President/Executive Vice President, David Bixby, Ed.D.; mayors Joseph Rocha of Azusa, Tzeitel Paras-Caracci of Duarte, and Karen Davis of Glendora; and California State Assembly Member Roger Hernandez addressed the delegates.

“To our friends, our athlete delegation from South Africa: Your visit reminds us that we are neighbors, global neighbors, and so welcome and thank you for inspiring us.”—California Assembly Member Roger Hernandez

“Azusa Pacific and the cities of Azusa, Duarte, and Glendora could have hosted our South African friends separately, but with all of us working together we demonstrated teamwork and a spirit of unity, something the Special Olympics exemplifies,” said Ginny Dadaian, director of community relations.

With a packed three-day schedule that included two community parades, a dance party, and a concert in the park, fun definitely dominated the itinerary. A highlight included a visit with Christian Okoye ’87, former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro running back, followed by a rousing afternoon of football led by 15 APU football players, past and present, and coach Justin Riddle. “Nothing is more American than football,” said Riddle. “Many of these South African athletes had never seen a football much less played, so we taught them the basics of catching, throwing, and tackling. Our athletes cheered them on. It was a great way to build relationships and share the love of Christ.”

In addition to the many on-campus volunteers, several APU faculty, staff, and students worked on site at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. Serving at USC’s Galen Center as media manager for 66 basketball teams, representing more than 50 countries, Joe Reinsch, sports information director, coordinated international media interviews with the teams and witnessed firsthand the players’ inspirational stories. “People need to hear from these athletes who radiate perseverance and hope,” he said. “It reminds us that good things happen in sports and, beyond that, their stories speak to our humanity in profound ways.”

Daniel Farwell, PT, DPT, assistant physical therapy professor, is a regional director for the Special Olympics FUNfitness Evaluation. Farwell, along with physical therapy students from APU and universities throughout Southern California, volunteered with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program on the USC campus providing seven days of physical therapy evaluations to the athletes by measuring flexibility, strength, balance, and aerobic condition and offering exercise instruction and information packets to help alleviate physical difficulties. “We worked 64 hours in five days yet I wouldn’t have given up even one hour,” said Farwell. “I loved every minute.”

Although the Special Olympics World Games ended after just two short weeks, the participants, especially the South Africa delegation, secured a lasting place in the hearts of the APU community. The South Africa team proudly returned home with many new American friends and 61 medals: 17 gold, 20 silver, and 24 bronze in a diverse field of sporting events ranging from aquatics and golf to equestrian and bocce ball.

Learn more about the Special Olympics, or get involved with Special Olympics Southern California.

Rachel White is the associate director of public relations in the Office of University Relations at APU.