First a little background about me and the opportunity I had to go on this trip. I am the Volleyball Sports Director for Special Olympics Missouri and was contacted by Special Olympics International as well as the State Department to participate in a Coaching Fellowship between the US, Serbia and Montenegro. Year one’s focus is volleyball in Europe and then year two will focus on soccer in the US.
It all began with a long trip from Jefferson City, Mo., to Belgrade, Serbia. Three flights, four airports, and a seven hour time change. I left St. Louis at 2 pm on Saturday and arrived at my hotel in Belgrade at 2 pm on Sunday.
After arriving, I had a chance to meet the others that would be in our fellowship group throughout the trip. Five from the US (myself, Scott from California, Teresa and Steven from Phoenix and Ruth from Dallas), three from Serbia (Jelena, Sasha and Max) and two from Montenegro (Besim and Saida). After a short presentation and dinner we concluded our first day.
Today consisted of classroom sessions with fellows and reps from Poland, Italy, Russia, Finland and Austria. Since several of the European countries are just starting to form volleyball teams we talked about the history of Special Olympics Volleyball, both Regulation and Unified. Most of the discussion was led by two Special Olympics Germany representatives.
Tonight we had a formal dinner and signing of proclamations between Special Olympics and the European Volleyball Confederation and the Serbian Volleyball Foundation. This provides all of the European countries with a way to promote volleyball and major resources that they can use.
After a short classroom session, we were bused to a local gym for some court time. For the first couple of hours our group was led through drills by Aldis Berzins (Special Olympics International) and Vanja Grbic (Professional Volleyball player from the former Yugoslavia). After a short break for lunch we had the opportunity to work with two newly formed Special Olympics Serbia volleyball teams.
After a few morning sessions, we finally had a chance to see a little of the city this afternoon.
We took a bus from the hotel downtown to a church that is still being built after 70 years! It was going to be the largest in this area until Russia started one and finished ahead of them. They are predicting it will take another 20 years for it to be finished!! At a ceremony 10 years ago they were able to get 20,000 people inside!
After that we went “downtown” and walked the shopping area. After walking for a while we sat down at a cafe and just relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. We are starting to get to know each other a little better and the language barrier is getting easier to handle. One of the most popular spots to visit is a statue of a horse. A very popular phrase is “Meet me at the horse”
On our way back to the hotel we drove around the city to see other sites and, weather permitting (it has rained every day), we will get to sightsee again tomorrow afternoon.
It is now down to the 5 from the US, 3 from Serbia, 2 from Montenegro and our hosts from Special Olympics Serbia. All of the other reps went home today since the coaching seminar part of the trip is over and the fellows are staying to do more.
This morning we had a few more classroom sessions. The best was a question and answer session with 1 Serbian athlete and 1 US athlete (Steven, one of the fellows) that have both transitioned from playing to being an assistant coach for their respective sports, soccer and basketball. Other sessions included a doctor speaking about injuries and nutrition and Max, a Serbian football (soccer) coach talking about the history of their Special Olympics program.
After lunch we had another opportunity to sightsee. Today we visited a fort built around 1750 on the hill above where the Danube and Sava Rivers meet. It was a very interesting place with great views of the city of Belgrade. After a short stop at a shopping mall, not my kind of shopping, we returned to the hotel. After returning, a few of us walked the streets around the hotel looking for shops to visit but did not find anything good.
Today we took about a three-hour bus ride to the city of Krusevac. When we arrived we had a chance to watch one of the club football (soccer) teams practice with a group of Special Olympic athletes. All girls, I’m guessing middle school age. It was at an indoor facility and they practiced for about an hour. Very well run practice.
We then went to the County Office and met a few politicians to present gifts from SOI. This is also the town where Serbia will have their National Games in football and at some other time swimming. All facilities used for free!
We then did a little sightseeing before visiting the swimming facility and the soccer stadium. The swimming pool is an Olympic-size pool and the soccer pitch (field) is the same one the professionals play on. As a matter of fact, if it was not for a debate between two guys running for president, Wednesday night we all planned to watch Red Star, one of the teams from Belgrade, play there on TV.
Received a very nice gift bag from the coaches from Krusevac and then headed back to the hotel.
Today we went and watched a football (soccer) competition at a suburb of Belgrade. It is actually the home town of Max, one of the Serbian fellows. Stayed most of the day and had the chance to play soccer with some of the Special Olympic athletes from Serbia. Our US athlete, Steven, got to hand out medals as well as Besim, one of the Montenegro fellows, and Aldis, one of the staff from Special Olympics International. We had a great time and the competition was run very well. We also had the chance to meet the US Ambassador to Serbia.
After the competition was over, Max invited us to a local restaurant for a drink and snack before we headed back to the hotel. We had to board a small boat to cross the river since the restaurant was on an island. Once again we had time to relax and enjoy each other’s company. The entire group really gets along well and has a lot of fun together.
After dinner we plan to sit and watch a football game on TV in the hotel lobby.
Today we went to opening of a state of the art football (soccer) complex opened by one of the Football Federations. We watched a celebrity match and then a group of Special Olympics athletes had a chance to scrimmage. I thought it was nice but not too much exposure to others while they were playing. Kind of on a back part of the complex while a bunch of other matches were being played. It was also supposed to have volleyball courts inside but we did not get a chance to see that.
Came back, had dinner, and Aldis and I went for a walk on the path behind the hotel for about 30 minutes until it became too dark to walk any more.
In the morning we had a chance to tour the stadium where the professional football team Red Star plays in Belgrade. They are one of the most historic soccer teams in all of Europe with a deep history and a large fan base in Serbia.
After lunch the US fellows went back to the downtown area by taxi and did some last minute shopping.
The evening dinner was our last chance to be together and reflect on what a great time we had on our trip. All are very sad to be departing but at the same time happy to return home to see family and friends and spread the word about Special Olympics.
Left the hotel early and once again after a long day of traveling returned home to Jefferson City ready to promote volleyball in our great state and hope to improve the number of athletes that participate in a sport that I love to teach.
To finish, I would like to say this was an awesome opportunity to be a part of. Learning about what other countries are doing, exchanging different ideas on how to promote Special Olympics, meeting coaches from other countries, etc. What a great experience. And, we also get the opportunity to get back together as a group this December in Washington D.C. and then travel to Louisville, Kentucky to watch the Women’s College Championships. I have to thank the staff of Special Olympics Missouri that helped make all of this possible.