What It Was Like to Attend, Volunteer at Summer Games

Editor’s note: Michael Amormino and his wife, Thann, attended Summer Games as volunteers. They collected stories and photos and this is their first-hand account.

This was our first time volunteering at the Special Olympics. My wife and I signed up with the Special Olympics Southern California communications team for Summer Games. The experience we received was much more than what we expected in the few hours we were there.

Our assignment was to find stories and capture small snapshots of the athletes, coaches and volunteers. As we made our way down the path toward the field, we heard a pure flowing laughter as we walked by our first group of athletes and their families. We were drawn in the direction of Jareth Slade, a young man with a sturdy swing of confidence.

Slade was competing in the 50-yard dash, running long jump, and the shot put.

“I’ve been doing it for 10 years,” he stated proudly.  His personal trainer, John, has him on a weekly training program. “I’m ready for my medal,” Slade said with a wide smile as we departed.

After a moment, we caught up to a veteran track and field star from San Gabriel Valley. Dean Arbour, or, as he is better known by his team and fans as, “Dino.” He and his mother, Doris, who is also his long-time coach, have been playing in the Games for 30 years.

“It’s my second life. I love it!” Doris said wholeheartedly.  “It certainly keeps us busy.”

Arbour, 43, trains for the 400m and 800m walk. When asked how many medals he had accumulated, he smiled and said, “I have countless medals. I don’t even know where they all are.”

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Michael Amormino, left, interviews San Luis Obispo swimmer Robert Broughton. Photo by Thann Amormino.

The next athlete we were magnetized to was the powerful swimmer, Robert Broughton, as he made his way around the gift area, standing above the others in a bright green cap. He is a tall and fit athlete of 38, who comes from San Luis Obispo. There, Broughton trains with his coach, Dustin, an even taller man, who swam competitively at the University of Texas. The well-spoken and talkative Broughton told us about his love of swimming.

“The 100m medley is the most challenging,” he confessed, yet it was also his favorite race. Broughton added that he never gets nervous while competing before large crowds.

Broughton also spoke highly of Coach Dustin and all the many hours he commits, saying, “He has been just a wonderful coach. He has not only helped my speed and endurance, he has just helped me do so many new things.”

Just down the coast from the last group, we found the entire Santa Maria-based team as they eagerly welcomed us and professed their appreciation for the Special Olympics program.

“We love being here with all of our friends. Every year we make new friends. So many friends,” one of the teammates offered.

The track and field star we had the pleasure to speak with was 54-year old Bill Nelson. With his flaming black cap, he eagerly showed us his wrist band with his name. He was competing in the 50m and 100m run. “I like the longer run,” he joked. Nelson’s laughter invigorated us all.  His teammates say that Nelson is “54 going on 25.”

Timothy Woodall, a 20-year-old with a focused look, next caught our eye. A native of Long Beach, Woodall was in his group’s tent surrounded by his support team. As he stood there in his black and gold track suit, he told us about the six years of experience he has gathered. He runs the 200m dash and is a closing runner in the men’s relay.

“He is fast. He really is,” said his aunt, as she quickly realized his abilities. “He was in softball before, but we had to get him into running because he is so quick.”

His teacher of four years, Roberto, was also in attendance and part of the Long Beach star’s team. Roberto has noticed a significant increase in the amount and quality of Woodall’s speech and interaction since his first participation with Special Olympics. A bright and regal star, Woodall is positive and ready to compete.

The last athlete we spoke to quickly grabbed our attention with a spiked, red mohawk. Louis Velasquez, 16, from nearby Norwalk, is a five-year track and field star, but he came this year solely to support his team. He spoke highly of his teammates and coaches for their demanding work and long hours of commitment. Velasquez stood just outside of his team’s tent with his mother, Barbara, who was also a volunteer and enjoyed every moment. She is always pleased to see the transcendent abilities of the athletes.

“There is absolutely no limit to what these guys can do. It is just amazing. It wows me every time,” Barbara said.

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San Gabriel Valley track and field coach Ron Russell, left, and his team. Photo by Thann Amormino.

Coming off the track after the Opening Ceremony, we met Ron Russell, a track and field coach better known as “Coach Ron.” From San Gabriel Valley, Coach Ron has spent the past 23 years training and mentoring athletes. The best part of it for him is seeing “the joy on the athletes’ faces.” The long and celebrated coaching history has rewarded him in so many ways.

“The experience of coaching these amazing athletes has truly humbled me,” he said. “Their positive attitudes give me the strength and inspiration to strive more in my own life and realize that my problems aren’t as big as I make them out to be.” Russell’s most prized experience was watching his son in the Games. “He simply came alive!” Russell said, with the proud stance of a father.

“He made me cry a puddle,” he said after seeing his son’s monumental achievements.

Over in the Healthy Athletes Village, we found the FUNfitness tent where athletes get physical exams and support from USC, Chapman University, and Azusa Pacific University students. There, we had the pleasure to speak with a physical therapy volunteer, Alex Gryder.

Gryder, a doctor of physical therapy student from USC, and has been coming out to offer health services to the athletes for five years.  Gryder admitted that the positive energy from the athletes and the Games keeps her graciously coming back. “It is such an honor to help and witness such enthusiasm from the athletes.” Gryder adds that she is always amazed to “see them overcome their ‘limitations’ with such pure joy and happiness.”

Also at Healthy Athletes was Hope Wills, a clinical health director who has been volunteering her much-valued services for 17 years. Wills told us about her amazement of seeing the athletes outside of clinical surrounding.

“It is such a blessing to see them overcome any limits they may have had,” she said. “Watching them in ‘people mode’ and not ‘patient mode’ is what really is important.”  Wills said there is absolutely nothing these fine athletes can’t overcome and that “it takes some very hard work to get where they are now.”

After gathering so many diverse and heartfelt stories, we quickly understood the intoxicating urge to be part of such a magnificent event.  The hearts of these athletes and all that came out to support the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games are enormous.  We will both be here again next year to meet more fine young stars.

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