After a stormy Thursday afternoon, the clouds parted and blue sky and sunshine shone through for the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games.
More than 2,000 athletes, their coaches, families and volunteers gathered in Happy Valley, where the state-wide showcase of competition and camaraderie has been held for nearly two decades.
Sue Paterno, whose leadership and vision have helped to shape and grow the games at Penn State, was given a standing ovation by the athletes assembled.
She softly spoke to them, "You are my inspiration; I love you."
The Opening Ceremonies proved to be a fitting reflection of the spirit of Special Olympics itself. In spite of the challenges of weather and technical difficulties, the ceremonies went on.
When the microphone cut out on national anthem singer, Justin Santoro, an athlete from Berks County, he paused, said "start again," and went back to the beginning. His deliberate, deep baritone voice was steady and strong until the microphone stopped once more.
"Start again," he said, again.
The next time he sang the anthem, Justin was joined by thousands of voices in the stands, so loud he would not have noticed if the mic cut out again. At the end of the song, Justin pumped his arms to the air in triumph, overwhelmed with pride and applause rather than raindrops raining down on him.
That is a common theme of Special Olympics, not only for the State Games, but also for the hundreds of county and regional competitions and even practices held throughout the year. There is no quit in these athletes; when knocked down, they not only get right back up, but also stop to help another who has fallen.
That spirit is what inspires thousands of volunteers to lend their time and talents to the program. Penn State student athletes from all sports help to welcome and usher the county contingents of athletes into the opening ceremonies.
Law enforcement officers join athletes to escort the torch from Pittsburgh to University Park as part of the "Be a Fan," Torch Run, which ends with the torch arriving at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park by way of Pittsburgh motorcycle police, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
The support of Sheetz, Inc. may be the most amazing of all. Celebrating its 20th anniversary of partnering with Special Olympics PA, Sheetz has given more than $3 million dollars in donations and in-kind contributions, plus thousands of employee volunteer hours to Special Olympics events.
This year they've pledged additional support to sponsor the Beaver Stadium Run to benefit Special Olympics at the $100,000 level.
Attend a sporting event, dance, meal or ceremony during the Special Olympics Summer Games, and you'll be amazed by the determination in the athletes, their accomplishments measured in smiles and hugs as much as in medals. But behind the scenes and throughout the year, what makes this important event possible is the support of coaches, volunteers and sponsors, all true champions in their own right.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.