This weekend, the Special Olympics Florida State’s Summer Games lived up to its name. From the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to the competition and the rivalries forged in the scorching Florida sun, there were smiles all around. With over 1,500 athletes, 300 Unified partners, and plenty of pretzel kiosks, there was something for everybody to enjoy—even a young journalist who had never seen something like this before.
ESPN’s Wide World of Sports red and silver globe and the facility’s sheer size instantly captivated me. As I strolled across the 220-acre facility towards the track and field complex, a sea of smiling faces and families holding hands showered me with positivity, bolstering my spirit for the long and hot day ahead.
Track and Field
Subsequently, I got to the track and field complex, a deafening starting pistol pierced the skies, commencing the first organized race I’d ever seen. I walked into the Wide World of Sports Complex knowing nobody else there, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t be the case as I walked out. Emerging from the sound of the pistol came the sight of one of the racers separating himself from the pack. Styling a bright orange tank top and a mean mug was Sergio Cano, the eventual winner of the Games’ first race by about 2 minutes.
“I would say the heat,” replied Cano when asked about the most significant challenge he confronted during the race, but he also spoke of off-track battles in his way. In addition to dealing with confidence inconsistencies in his racing ability, Cano has trouble sleeping and is recovering from a surgery he had earlier this week, “but [running] is my favorite sport, so I can’t say ‘no.'” Cano’s determination before and during the race drew me to speak to him, but his heart of gold recognized me among a crowd later on and pulled me aside to converse.
Later, I went to the AdventHealth Arena to watch bocce, a sport I learned about the morning of the Games. The players were playing the game differently than I expected. Still, a kind soul was there to tell me the gist of their version of bocce: Peter. A bocce coach and expert, Peter had me go from a novice to yelling “BOCCE!!!” when a ball hit the pallina. An overview of a sport turned into a 90-minute personal conversation about Pokemon, food, and biking accidents we suffered as kids.
Cheer and Cycling
I continued exploring the complex and found new cracks and crevices in each building where I’d find a new event. St. Cloud High School was winning a gold medal in cheerleading in the same building as the bocce event. Outside the AdventHealth Arena were dozens of children and adults burning rubber on two wheels. Cyclers from across the state came to compete while being cheered on by even more fans off to the side. By lunchtime, I went to get food when I found a little hallway that led to the largest gymnasium. Eight volleyball matches unfolded simultaneously, but one distinguished itself from the rest.
Court 4 was the most exciting volleyball match I have witnessed as the Orange County Westside Team Florida faced off against the Brevard County Blasters. Whichever team had more set wins after 90 minutes would win it all, and the first match went to Westside, followed by the rematch going in favor of the Blasters. In a ferocious Set 3, the pride of Brevard County took their second win. Set 4 marked the expiration of the 90 minutes, and a tied score led the teams into sudden death to decide the winner. Westside took Set 4, leading to the need for one more sudden death round. Despite “a lot of serving errors,” as Westside’s Head Coach Niko Lambert emphasized, his squad overcame a 2-1 deficit and took home the hardware after a 150-minute long battle.
Coach Lambert clarified that his players’ “camaraderie and brotherhood” led them to their Cinderella-story win. He said, “When you’re comfortable with the guys next to you, you play a lot better… They’re brothers and having fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Nearby, pastures became pitches as several soccer matches took place simultaneously by the track and field complex. Of the many games, I decided to sit down and watch the action on Field 16D. Two youth groups faced off, and it brought me back to my middle school days when I’d throw on shin guards, play my heart out, and pray my mom had cash for a Nutter Butter on the way out.
When the Monroe KLS Tornados netted one of their many goals against the Pasco CRES Lightning, a teammate hoisted the scorer at midfield, and they both let out a celebratory scream. The innocence and purity of these two athletes can make a spectator feel all kinds of things: nostalgia, pride, envy, and pain. Sports are a trying hobby, but the beauty of youth sports is that every time you step foot on the court, field, or track, it’s pure enjoyment. It outnumbered blades of grass this weekend, but I didn’t see anyone as overjoyed as Isaiah.
Hillsborough County Track and Field
I saw almost every event under the blazing heat, thus, I went to the bathroom, washed my face a little, refilled my water bottle, and as I stepped out, Isaiah was walking by. His eyes outshined the full moon above a midnight shoreline, and his smile struggled to stay within his cheeks at the sight of me. I had never met Isaiah. I hadn’t seen him at all before this moment. I had nothing to do with him or the group he was with, nor them with me, yet he greeted me like a family member he hadn’t seen in years.
And so, I went along with the conversation Isaiah started, and before I knew it, I walked with his group from one end of the complex to the other. Time flew by as Isaiah, and I spoke about school, graduation, and our favorite cars. Isaiah and I are only a few years apart and graduated from the University of South Florida. A future USF Bull, Carter, whom I also befriended, accompanied him and shared about life along the Gulf. Seeing Isaiah pleading with his coach to take a picture in front of the ESPN globe, I snapped a picture of the entire Hillsborough County Track and Field team. It was the perfect cap for a truly memorable day.
Review of the Special Olympics
Finally, as I searched for my car in the parking lot, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I encountered and learned over just a few hours: new people, new sports, and new lifestyles. Anything and everything good happened this weekend at the Special Olympics Florida State’s Summer Games.
To learn more about what the Special Olympics Florida State’s Summer Games does, visit https://www.specialolympicsflorida.org. And to read about more events in the Orlando area, visit https://www.centralfloridalifestyle.com.