Ever since I had the honor of spending nine days of my life from sunup to sundown covering the Special Olympic World Games LA 2015 this last July as a media photographer for Specialneeds.com, I yearned to continue my involvement in the Special Olympics whenever and wherever I could. Not only because I learned just before the games that I shared one of the same “Special Gifts” as those competing athletes, but more importantly, because I found in these athletes a joy, courage, and passion that inspired me beyond words. As a result, I felt a “need”--a blessed obligation--to witness more of this and to share what I saw with those that would listen to my words and read the words I would write in the hopes this infectious inspiration would “rub” off in some way.
On Saturday, October 24th, 2015, I received this very opportunity. The Inland Empire Region of the Special Olympics Southern California held their Fall Games at the “Big League Dreams Sports Park” in Perris, California. The Special Olympics Inland Empire is one of nine regional programs of the Special Olympics Southern California and their year-round sports training and competitions enriches the lives of over 1600 athletes in the Riverside and San Bernardino counties. This is just a fraction of the over 19,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities throughout Southern California that are impacted by the Special Olympics Southern California sports, education, and athlete health programs (Statistical data found on the the Special Olympics Southern California website).
As I walked through the gates into the park that morning before the start of the games, I felt as if I was where I was meant to be--in a place where I could witness more of the joy, courage, and passion I had the privilege of witnessing and photographing at the Special Olympic World Games. I was excited for what the morning held for me…to say the least.
Due to scheduling conflicts, I only had the morning to cover what I could, and as much as I wanted to watch, photograph, and report on each and every athlete and teams in attendance, I knew I had to reluctantly limit myself to just one team with the main focus being on one athlete. Being from Riverside County myself, I felt myself drawn to the Riverside softball teams; Central Riverside Upper Division Team 1 and Lower Division Team 2. As soon as I walked up to the athletes preparing for the day, I was immediately met with joyous smiles and “hellos”; how could anyone’s spirits not be lifted by a greeting such as this…again, this is infectious! I introduced myself to one of the softball coaches, Teddy Glover, and expressed my desire to interview one of her athletes. When Teddy mentioned to me her daughter, softball pitcher Samantha Sanchez from Team 1, was chosen to carry the torch at the event’s opening ceremonies, I knew she was the one to interview.
A short while later, the opening ceremonies began and as I watched the various teams proudly and excitedly parade into the field, I felt within me an excitement of what the day held for them, and what it would mean to them in the days to come. Then at last, I watched as Samantha walked down towards the Special Olympics Cauldron, bordered by cheerleaders waving their colorful pom-poms and by the roar of the cheering crowd, holding the Special Olympics Torch with Riverside County Sheriff’s Sergeant, Sgt. Reyes. If anyone ever wished to see a look of pride, all they needed was to look to Samantha’s face at that moment in time. Moments later, Sgt. Reyes lit the torch that was met with cheers from all those present as I noticed Samantha watched with what I suspected was a moment she would add to her collection of life’s most treasured moments---the Special Olympic Fall Games of the Inland Empire Region had begun.
I met with Samantha a few minutes after the completion of the opening ceremonies as she and her team were preparing to compete. When I asked Samantha for an interview, she did not hesitate to say yes and I learned why soon thereafter. When I first asked Samantha about her involvement in the Special Olympics, she proudly shared with me that not only has she been competing in the basketball and swimming events for the last four years and in the softball events for the last three years, but that she was the only female on her softball and basketball team. Samantha added that she was the pitcher for her softball team and quickly mentioned she had, “good people” that helped her on the field. When I asked Samantha about her carrying the torch during the opening ceremonies, she expressed to me it was a great experience for her and it was the first time, but hopefully not the last time she would do so. I asked Samantha why she chose to become involved in the Special Olympics and she quickly accredited her father, who she proudly mentioned was a 1988 Olympian wrestler, to her decision. Samantha said once she began competing, she realized she enjoyed it and that, “[…] this is what I want to do [....]” I left the interview strongly suspecting the passion and love of the sport I undeniably sensed from Samantha would be witnessed on the field that day...I happily discovered what I sensed would hold true.
Later in the morning, I followed Samantha onto the field with her teammates where they began their warm up in preparation for their game. Samantha practiced her pitches, both underhand and overhand, in a manner obviously consistent with someone who knew what they were doing and in a style of their own. I noticed this same consistent style later carried over to her pitching during the game, complemented by Samantha’s obvious love and passion for the game…anyone who looked upon her face as she threw her pitches towards home plate could not help but notice this. I had the privilege of witnessing this same love and passion for the game among her teammates, both in the field and when up to bat; which along with teamship, carried them to take the "Gold" at the end of the day---First Place. This same love, passion, and teamship was obviously shared with Central Riverside’s Lower Division Team 2 for they took home the Gold too.
I came to this event believing I would witness the same level of courage, joy, and passion for life I was inspired by at the Special Olympic World Games; by morning’s end, this held true for every athlete I saw. Reflecting back on that day, I am left with an unshakeable sense of commitment, zeal, and passion to do my part, however small it may be, to cover the Special Olympics whenever and wherever I can. For the athletes of the Special Olympics deserve to be recognized and honored for their accomplishments and for what they stand for, as they set an example for us all that joy, passion, and accomplishment; to name just a few of what I witnessed, can be achieved by anyone, regardless of how old or young, rich or poor, and/or regardless what life challenges you may face at any given time. You just have to believe…and be inspired!
*To view a video of my interview with Samantha and portions of the opening ceremonies, please click here: https://youtu.be/yGZH2V3AIH4.
*To view additional images of the event and of Samantha and her team in action, click here: http://goo.gl/43xYtY