Valley plays host to Special Olympics

Last modified: Monday, September 08, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — As Special Olympian Corey Cohen waited in anticipation for his team to take over the softball diamond at Sheehan Field in Nonotuck Park Saturday morning, he didn’t hesitate when asked his favorite sport.

He pointed to the field below him.

Softball was one of the sports represented in the Special Olympics Massachusetts’ August Tournament this weekend, when more than 800 athletes from all over the state converged on the Valley to participate in state-level competitions in fishing, softball, bocce, cycling and golf. The Special Olympics offers athletes of all ages who have intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate in some 30 sports year-round.

Cohen, 58, of Brookline, also participates in basketball and bowling.

The games fanned out across the Valley, with softball at Nonotuck Park and at Blunt Park in Springfield, fishing in the Quabbin, cycling at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and golf at the Westover Golf Course in Granby.

The weekend also featured festivities as part of “Olympic Town,” which included a dance Saturday night on the Hampshire Dining Commons Quad and activities such as a basketball shoot, arts and crafts and carnival games at Blunt and Nonotuck parks both days.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., there was a torch-lighting ceremony in the Hampshire Dining Commons at UMass by members of the Amherst, Easthampton, Shutesbury, Amherst College and UMass police departments, the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department and the UMass men’s and women’s basketball teams, hockey and football team.

The mood at the softball games in Nonotuck Park was intense. The crowd fell silent each time the pitcher wound up, then exploded into cheers and encouraging words once the batter hit the ball. Parents of athletes called out not just the names of their own children, but those of their children’s teammates.

They said it’s not just an opportunity for their kids to participate in sports, but to gain social confidence.

“One of the challenges (for) a child with special needs is social isolation,” said Giles John Rae, of Marlborough. “It can be a very lonely life.”

But the Special Olympics, he said, gets them out of their homes. Because athletes of all ages participate in the Special Olympics, he noted, his 22-year-old son, Giles Alan Rae, now has friends who range between the ages of 18 and 50.

He pointed him out as “the guy with his hands on his knees, ready to make a play” on first base. His son loves both playing and watching sports, and is a huge fan of the Red Sox, he said, so the ability to play on a sports team has been a “dream.” He has now been part of the Special Olympics for 12 years.

“Thank God for the Special Olympics,” said Kathy Bonvie of Marshfield, as she watched her son Jerard, 21, in the game. “It just gives these kids a nice, normal thing to look forward to. ... Everybody needs something to look forward to.”

Jerard has participated in the Special Olympics for 11 years, she said, and has learned to make friends as well as be a part of a team. As well as softball, he also plays soccer, floor hockey and basketball.

On the other side of the field, Rose Maloney of North Easton watched as her daughter Erin, 22, caught the ball. “Now she knows she can do it again,” she said.

She also said that the Special Olympics gives participants opportunities to socialize they would not have otherwise.

“They are not afraid to talk to people anymore,” she said.

All through the game, encouraging phrases such as “fantastic pitch” could be heard through the public address system.. Special Olympics volunteer Jason Shaffer, 19, of Framingham, who was in the role of announcer, said he tries to be as positive as possible when he makes his calls.

“I’ll avoid saying, ‘error by the third baseman,’” he said, and instead, “I’ll say, ‘Great hit.’”

Meanwhile, it was a calmer scene at the bocce courts in another area of Nonotuck Park.

“The game is a game of skill and finesse and science,” said Special Olympics coach Geri Finlay, of Malden. Her son Michael, 35, was participating in the golf tournament in Granby.

She said she believes that everybody should have their “passion sport,” noting that her son, who has autism, prefers individual over team sports. “I really like to see everybody have one sport that’s theirs,” she said.

The Special Olympics, she noted, gives athletes with a wide range of abilities an opportunity to participate. For example, with bocce, she said, some athletes see it as a game of numbers and angles, while others might not have that level of mathematical ability.

“Playing field is level here,” she said. “We’re all here to do the same thing.”

She describes her son as having a high-functioning form of autism, but said he socializes with everyone.

“He walks up to the lowest-functioning kid here, and (says), ‘That’s my friend.’”

Finlay said her basic philosophy on life is, “Don’t tell me what they can’t do. Let’s try it and see what they can do.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.