At most sporting events, it’s expected for there to be rowdy fans booing and heckling the other athletes.
This wasn’t the case in Poughkeepsie, as fans packed the stands of the Mid-Hudson Civic Center on Saturday, Feb. 18 to celebrate the perseverance of the 900-plus athletes in the Special Olympics.
Families, volunteers and event coordinators gathered together with custom-made signs to cheer on every athlete for the yearly event.
The opening ceremonies and cauldron lighting were held on Friday evening, with figure skating taking place the following day at the location from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Athletes competed in other events, including snowboarding and alpine skiing on Saturday at Holiday Mountain in Monticello. Floor hockey also took place at the Stewart Air National Guard Base at Stewart Airport in New Windsor during the day as well.
This is the second year of a two-year slot Poughkeepsie was granted to host an event.
Karalee Piels, sports director of figure skating, says the Special Olympics provide a chance for athletes to compete at a high level.
“It’s an opportunity for the athletes to compete in a way that everyone else competes,” Piels said. “That’s why we hold it to very rigid standards just like you would on any sports team.”
Piels has been involved with the Special Olympics for over 10 years. She has witnessed her 33-year-old daughter, Cori, single-handedly work past her physical disability to prove she is just like any other athlete.
Piels, the self-proclaimed “lifelong volunteer” adopted Cori from an orphanage in India when she was 6 years old. Cori suffered a lack of muscle strength, and had to overcome language barriers and physical training to get on the ice.
Cori pleaded to her mother to let her skate, but was initially unsuccessful as Karalee was concerned about the physical safety of her daughter.
Low and behold, Cori remained persistent and eventually began to master figure skating, which showed in the crowd during the figure skating events.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone to an event where I haven’t cried,” Piels said. “When you know the backstories of what they have overcome, it is just incredible when you see them out there on ice skates.
“It was as if she had no coordination issues. The ice was her home.”
Sitting in the front row of the bleachers was Kit Peterson, holding a white poster board sign that read “Go Jon” in black and gold letters, decorated with red foam hearts and Hershey’s Kisses around the caption with a matching red hat.
Peterson was at the event to support her 20-year-old grandson Jonathan, who participated in the figure skating event of the day-long Olympics.
Jonathan was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old and has been a residential student at the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg since 2012.
Jonathan has been ice skating for nearly a year and has been developing his skills with his personal coach, Laurie May. Peterson noted the symbolism behind the Hershey’s Kisses on her sign for Jonathan.
Before every practice, her grandson would give a Hershey’s Kisses chocolate to his friend Claire and one to his coach. At the end of the practices, he would receive the candy back as a reward for his success in practice.
“He would practice an hour a week with his coach and he loves it,” Peterson said. “He puts on his skates and can’t wait to get on the ice. He’s very happy skating.”
Volunteers at the event included parents, event organizers and even members from the New Paltz area.
Anyone had the opportunity to volunteer, as you were given the opportunity to create your own signs at a station after signing up.
Third-year early childhood education major and SUNY New Paltz student Alyssa Plastini heard about the event from her mother and wanted to volunteer.
“I figured it would be a good cause to come to,” Plastini said. “I plan on working with special education students, so I thought it was a good way to support them.
“I’ve heard a bunch of good things about it; it’s been on the radio a lot. I figured I’d come out and give my support,” Plastini added.
The Special Olympics Summer Games will be held at Siena College from Friday, June 16 to Sunday, June 18. They will remain there for the summer of 2018, following the same two-year format the Winter Games utilize.