I was able to attend the World Summer Games in 2015 in Los Angeles as a working-vacation following SO Missouri’s softball team and tennis athlete around while visiting friends in Southern California. I had a little taste of that World Games experience and wanted more.
I was lucky enough to be selected to serve as a communications assistant for Special Olympics USA at the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria.
The first leg of our trip took us to Washington, D.C. where we met up as a team for the first time since training camp in December in Vermont. We were treated to a nice dinner and evening program that included traditional Bavarian folk music to get us in the spirit of what we’d experience while in Austria. Check out my video.
We left the next afternoon on what was my first international flight. We left late enough that we flew most of the night and while I expected to pop a few Dramamine and zonk out for the whole trip, I found myself wide awake for most of it. I don’t know if it was the nerves or what, but I hate-watched a couple of C-list movies and we made it to Vienna at 8:30 a.m., which equated to 3:30 a.m. in D.C. We boarded the bus for Graz and arrived at out Host Town around 11 a.m.
The next day we were treated to tours of a local Riegersburg Castle and Zotter Chocolate Factory. For a recap of everything the teams did that day, check out the video I put together on their one full fun day away from practice and competition.
Even as I sit here and type this out on Sunday morning, I can’t really remember a lot of what’s already happened as the days are running together already and competition has only barely begun.
I am housed in Graz, which is where the floor hockey, figure skating and speed skating competitions are being held. As much as it pains me to be away from our two Missouri athletes (Andy Martinez in snowshoeing and Andrew Baswell in alpine skiing), I’m relishing the opportunity to see some of the best regulation and Unified floor hockey teams in the world because I’m a Unified Partner on the Jackson County Parks and Rec Unified team. Both our regulation team from Southern California and our Unified team from New York are really, really good and they’ve already established themselves as two of the top teams at World Winter Games.
During any World Games — and on some level at the USA Games – part of the fun where you get the “good feelings” are seeing people of so many different backgrounds together, either during competition or just around Olympic Town and at the venues. My first moment at these World Games happened early during speed skating practice when you saw the United States sharing the ice with Russia, Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, Nippon (Japan) and more.
That day we shared a bus back to the hotel with the German national team and I was lucky enough to chat with Sebastian most of the way. He told me all about his past World Games experience (this is his fourth), his cycling trip across America (I too love riding my bike) and how good his floorball team is (VERY good, apparently, haha).
Saturday brought the Opening Ceremony in Schladming, which was a 2 ½ hour bus ride away from Graz. The countryside between Graz and Schladming is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen mountains before, sure, but the way these small villages and houses butt up against the base of the mountains creates the most beautiful backdrop I’ve ever seen.
The weather forecast called for rain and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I knew what being out on the red carpet during Opening Ceremony was like because I took photos from the media section in Los Angeles in 2015, but being able to walk in with the delegation was something I’ll never forget.
Even just sitting in the parking deck across the street waiting for the ceremony to begin, it was hard not to get goosebumps as Sweden, Switzerland and the United States went back and forth chanting to see who could be the loudest, most passionate and most patriotic delegation. There was a short period of time where a couple of athletes stepped forward and I thought we were going to have a “Step Up: Special Olympics-style dance competition” but it didn’t come to fruition. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed, haha.
I met up with Andy and Andrew at that time and traded as many pins as possible with countries staged around us before we had to head toward the entrance into the stadium. Seeing not only the athletes but the Unified Partners from the New York floor hockey team get geeked out for something of this magnitude was my favorite part of the evening. If you aren’t following the backstory of that team, you need to ASAP. The Unified Partners and athletes from that team couldn’t be more different (race, economically, socially, etc.) and it finally felt like the UPs changed from thinking they were giving this experience to the athletes to experiencing it WITH them.
Everything happened so fast that it felt like we were livestock being moved from one holding pen to another until we were finally set free to walk down the red carpet. I took one side of the group for photos, while Aaron Mills (communications director of our team) took the other and it quickly turned into me just standing in the middle of the group walking backwards with my right index finger firmly planted on the button, clicking at rapid fire. Mandi told me the day before to be sure and take a moment to just look around the stadium and soak it in before it was over. I remembered this just in time before the parade was finished (they said it was the shortest distance in World Games history). While the rain was something we all worried about most of the day, it actually made for a great atmosphere and added another element to the experience.
Unfortunately, I messed up pretty badly during Opening Ceremony and didn’t account for exactly how bright it was during the Parade of Athletes, so every single one of my photos during the parade was washed out (too bright). I was so focused on getting as many photos of as many athletes as possible during the parade that I didn’t take an extra two seconds to look at the screen and make sure I had the right settings. I whisper-yelled a few curse words and sulked for the first 20-30 minutes of the actual entertainment, not because I missed out on great photos for me, but because now those athletes won’t have photos of their experience.
When I make mistakes, I have the tendency to dwell on them longer than I probably should. I’ve been trying to be better about this, but it’s something I’m working on. After Opening Ceremony, we boarded the bus for our long trip home and I got to work on this blog and editing some of my other photos from the day. I think I found a way to salvage maybe a half dozen of the parade photos in a way that makes them look a little more artsy than usual, but it’s better than nothing. Most people will probably think that was the effect I was going for anyway, so it could work out okay after all, haha.
Our skaters are taking to the ice now, so I have to get going, but I’ll try to check in at least one more time during the week. Danke schön!