It's been a significant week for sports in Pennsylvania, as the Keystone State welcomed more than 2,000 Special Olympians for the Summer Games, and more than 100,000 race fans for the NASCAR event at Pocono.
When the legions of athletes arrived on the Penn State campus Thursday to begin their annual competition, pomp and circumstance reigned. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the accreditation of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, festivities included music, a parade, fireworks and an inspiring torch run by law enforcement officers from Pittsburgh to State College, culminating in a lights-and-siren-motorcycle escort to the torch's final destination opening the 2011 event.
Sadly, one very important friend was missing. Al Senavitis, long-time Chairman of the Board, volunteer and advocate for Special Olympics passed away suddenly last November after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 70 years old.
Senavitis spent decades traveling the state, the country and even the world promoting Special Olympics: cultivating sponsorship support, recruiting volunteers, and taking the Pennsylvania State Summer (and Winter) Games to new heights. He always had an extra moment to visit with the athletes for whom he worked so hard.
Those who were part of the organization, as well as the athletes themselves, appreciated and adored him, though many may not have known of Senavitis' own athletic prowess.
A stand-out athlete at Liberty High School, Al earned all-state honors in both basketball and track (his childhood best friend was famous TV commentator Billy Packer.) Al went on to play on the Masters tennis circuit, and in addition to working as a special education teacher, coached multiple high school and collegiate sports.
Perhaps it was his own athletic history that inspired Al to want to create opportunities for the thousands of Special Olympians he touched throughout his lifetime.
As the PA Summer Games launched its fifth decade, there was much to celebrate, but there were also many tears, missing this special population's dear friend.
Just a few hours away, Long Pond was hosting its first NASCAR weekend of the season. Jeff Gordon not only won his fifth career Pocono Race, he picked up career victory No. 84, moving into a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip third most wins all-time.
It was 10 years ago that Gordon won his fourth Cup title. Back then, it seemed like he may very well be the one to surpass the Earnhardt/Petty record of seven series championships. His success at such a young age made him a driver you either loved or loved to hate.
Now on the verge of turning 40 this summer, Gordon has endured some tough seasons and even watched his teammate win five straight championships. He's also proven to be one of the most generous drivers, giving his money, time, and effort to a variety of charities, especially those that help children. He personifies NASCAR's popularity surge in the 90's and now continues his hard-charging ways. Like him or not, Gordon's still got it.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Kellie@BedfordCountyChamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.