Unlike most people, I never wanted to go to New York. I know, I know: a spectacular city, a million things to do, its own incredible history and personality, an experience in life that one should have. The New York I imagined, however, was all noise and confusion: impersonal, crowded, traffic-choked. Still, my family and I were going: My daughter, Allison, had qualified to be in the National Special Olympics, held this year in New Jersey, just across the river from New York.
Despite my trepidation, it all vanished the moment we entered the Opening Ceremonies. The scene: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.; house lights down, a huge, electronic scoreboard frames center stage, some 12,000 people excitedly buzzing; purplish-blue spotlights lance the darkness; two electric-red ribbons of light encircle the entire arena proclaiming "Special Olympics 2014 Games."
Through four tunnels at the corners of the arena emerge delegations of athletes and coaches from every state, marching in behind their state signs. The announcer booms out: "Al-a-ba-ma, A-la-ska, Ar-i-zo-na "
By my side is my 22-year-old son, Ben, the ultimate stoic. But, when California is announced and his sister comes out of the tunnel, when the spotlight hits her and the arena camera grabs Allie's image giving a big high-10 to a volunteer from New Jersey, hands folding into hands in what amounts to an embrace, the edges of Ben's lips curl into a semi-smile. His eyes well up. He is proud. I am overcome.
That feeling only deepens upon discovering over the course of the ensuing week that my daughter is housed in an Olympic Village, decorated in New Jersey boardwalk style. She is treated to a Hudson River cruise and taken to a Trenton Thunder Class AA baseball game.
I learn that these Special Olympics are held only once every four years; 3,500 athletes compete in 16 Olympic-style team and individual events spread over 12 venues, supported by 1,000 coaches and 10,000 volunteers.
It is all witnessed by 70,000 family, friends and spectators. The local Princeton Packet newspaper informed us that something billed the Cessna Citation Airlift brought 700 of the athletes via Cessna aircraft, one landing every 90 seconds at Trenton's airport. They were flown by more than 100 volunteer pilots, each donating a plane, fuel and time. Upon arrival, the athletes, in full team uniforms, were met by a room full of hundreds of balloons, streamers and cheering supporters.
The competition was equally moving. For Allie, it was track and field: 100-meter run, 200-meter run and long jump. My daughter can be shy to the point of being withdrawn. She can bow her head, roll her shoulders inward, and nearly physically collapse unto herself.
When she is introduced to the crowd before her 100-meter run, she puts her arms up and flexes her muscles, blowing kisses to the crowd. In the 200-meter run, she is near last in a field of eight.
When she rounds the corner passing two girls, she slows down, looks over at them for a split second, as if worried or concerned about their well-being. Apparently satisfied they are OK, she blows past them down the backstretch and finishes fifth. Later, taking cover from a light drizzle under the awards tent at Princeton's football field, her mom and I find her holding hands and dancing in her chair with another competitor, a young woman from Pennsylvania.
On our seventh day at the games, the family did the classic tourist trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On a stunningly beautiful day, I stood 150 feet off the ground at the top of the statue's stone pedestal. I could not believe I was here. I could not believe I was touching the Statue of Liberty. My daughter, my autistic daughter, brought me here.
Brian Arax is native Fresnan. Through his daughter, he and his wife have been active in the special needs community for 25 years.