In 2014, my husband Larry spent eight days in New Jersey as the New York State triathlon coach at the Special Olympics USA National Games. He described his experience as “incredible” and “life affirming.” As soon as he arrived home, he tried to catch up on his sleep as he got less than five hours a night for the entire trip. How he got to this nirvana of sleep deprivation is part of Shapiro family lore.
Almost twenty years ago, Larry announced at the dinner table that he had signed the family up to volunteer at the New York State Special Olympics Summer Games that were being held at University of Albany in early June. My children had been involved in sports for a long time, and Larry recognized that many volunteers had made their swimming, cross country, and track and field meets possible. He felt the four of us should pay it forward by contributing our time to the intellectually challenged athletes at the state-wide event in the track and field competition.
We enjoyed our experience enough to sign up to volunteer again the following year. While at the games, Larry was asked to help out with the Saratoga County track and field program that met April through mid-June at the Saratoga Springs high school track. Larry’s co-worker also volunteered, and the two of them drove up every Monday and Thursday from downtown Albany. After a couple of years the two of them extended their time commitment to include helping at local Special Olympic meets.
As the years progressed, Larry took on more and more responsibilities. He became head coach and held additional practices for athletes who exhibited high levels of skill in an event. He started a cross country running program, volunteered to coach for the Clifton Park bowling program, conducted coaching certification classes, and served on various Special Olympic committees. Larry knew that his involvement in Special Olympics would give him focus and purpose after he retired. It was shortly before his last day of work that he found out he was chosen as one of the track and field coaches for the National Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July 2010. One of our athletes came home with silver medals in the 1500 and 3000 meter runs.
Along the way, Larry had convinced me and a number of friends to become track and field coaches, and we all gained much from our participation. The best part for all of us was being with the athletes at practices. Twice a week every spring, over forty athletes ranging in age from sixteen to eighty years old, several coaches, and numerous parents and group home staff would gather at six o’clock at the track. The athletes ranged in age from eight to seventy-five, with their intellectual and physical challenges ranging as widely as their ages. Larry started everyone off with a team cheer P-A-C-E-R-S! Then the activities began. On the field, some athletes threw a softball and had their distances recorded by the coaches. A group of stronger athletes worked with a coach on the turbo-javelin and the shot-put. Others were practicing the standing long jump. On the track, athletes, depending on their levels and abilities, participated in runs, walks, wheel chair events. The visually challenged ran twenty-five to fifty meters holding a baton strung through a 50 meter rope that was held in a straight line by cheering team mates. Practice ended with Larry gathering up the athletes for one more cheer before they went home. Two or three times a season, coaches and members of the team participated in local competitions on a Saturday morning. Whether we were at practices or at our meets, our athletes’ times and distances were secondary to just having fun. The cheers were as loud for the athlete who threw the softball two meters as it was for the athlete who came in first in the 1500 meter run.
Larry took pride in the accomplishments of every athlete and was always recruiting new team members. While helping with Special Olympics bowling during fall 2013, Larry watched an athlete decimate the pins with his powerful swing. Larry persuaded Rich to join track and field and use that strength to throw shot-put and the turbo javelin. By the end of his first season, the athlete impressed officials at the state games in Buffalo enough for Rich to be chosen to compete in Nationals in New Jersey. While there, he not only won a gold medal in his division in the shot-put but also came home with gold in the turbo jab with the longest throw of anyone in the country in the turbo javelin finals.
Saying goodbye to the Pacers when we moved to Florida was one of our hardest moments.We follow their accomplishments on Facebook and through emails. In honor of our athletes, we have named the small body of water in our backyard “Pacer Pond.”
Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew expression that means “repairing the world,” the moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. I take pride in knowing that Larry’s involvement in Special Olympics is his way of making the world better for so many athletes.