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Happiness all around as Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle come to a close

Seattle Times - 7/8/2018

July 07--Smiles, smiles, everywhere smiles.

That was what you got this past week at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, whether it was athletes competing or touring the city, coaches and volunteers relishing in the athletes' success or Games organizers seeing the week exceed even their highest expectations.

The USA Games began a week ago with an inspirational two-hour Opening Ceremony at Husky Stadium, with 4,000 athletes and coaches from 50 states and the District of Columbia, and with more than 15,000 volunteers ready to lend their support.

It ended with Friday's closing ceremony at Lake Union Park, which was more like an outdoor party, athletes everywhere showing off the medals they had won, and all seemingly with huge smiles.

"It has been an amazing week," said Team Kentucky swimming coach Debbie Ogden. "The athletes put everything they have into this, and Seattle has been awesome. This is my first time coaching at the national Games, and I have to tell you, there have been tears flowing down my cheeks."

Count Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan among the biggest fans of the Games. For her, one of the highlights of the week was being downtown and meeting athletes and their families.

"It takes more sheer grit and determination for them to do every day than any of us have to do in our lives, often -- and yet the joy they show, and share with us, they really make us better," she said. "I don't think there could be a better event to have in Seattle, and it has been such a great week to have them here."

According to the Games' organizers, total attendance across all 14 venues was 101,500 people. The estimate before the event had been 70,000.

"It far exceeded my expectations," said Beth Knox, president and CEO of the 2018 Games. "The part that was so astounding to me was not only the response from the volunteers, who showed up as they committed to and went above and beyond in supporting the Games, but also the general public showing up in the stands.

"Every venue that I went to was full to packed, and that was every single day. They just showed up to cheer on these athletes and make them feel recognized and it showed their appreciation for the efforts of the athletes."

Team Pennsylvania track coach Tom Delaney said he wished he had more time to tour Seattle, but he spent most of his week either in the UW dorms or at the track on campus. He also was a coach in the 2014 Games in New Jersey.

"These Games ran much smoother, and it was better organized," he said.

Dave Lenox, CEO of Special Olympics Washington, said the exposure locally should be a huge boost in terms of getting more people involved, from athletes to volunteers. He said there are about 18,000 athletes participating in Special Olympics in the state, about one-tenth of those who are eligible.

"This was an absolute game changer," he said. "We always want to grow. A lot of times, it's people thinking, 'I don't think I can do that,' or they're intimidated or whatever. But they see this, and now with the exposure of the Games being here, people are going, 'I get it now. Because I am seeing people that look like me.' "

Lenox said there has been an increase in applications to join in recent months, and he expects a significant boost in the next month.

"People will look at what happened, and say, 'That is a safe place for my child to go, and play sports,' " he said. "They may have heard about us, but they really didn't know. But now with the Games being here, there is so much more awareness."

For the athletes around the country, it was a chance to not only compete but also to learn about a new place.

For Alex Cimino, coach of the Team Massachusetts soccer team, going to the Mariners game was a big highlight, but it was a different venue that got his players excited.

"Did we like going to the Pike Place Market this morning?" he asked his team. "Yes!" the players roared, smiling broadly.

In 2022, the Summer Games will be in Orlando, Fla. But these Games will not be forgotten.

"The public here recognized the significance of the Games," Knox said. "They wanted to feel like they were a part of it as well. They wanted to bring their families and communicate the message of inclusion to their kids and have that be carried on long after the Games."

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(c)2018 The Seattle Times

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