Special Olympics thrives in Happy Valley


From October through March, Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena is home to the Nittany Lion varsity teams, the stands filled with blue-and-white-clad hockey fans.

But last week, the bleachers looked like a rainbow, packed with more than 2,000 Special Olympics athletes from throughout the state of Pennsylvania, along with their 800-plus coaches, and hundreds of family members, friends and volunteers.

Splashes of color revealed each county’s delegation, the crowd bouncing with excitement as athletes joined in singing, dancing, and above all, smiling throughout the Games’ Opening Ceremonies.

The ceremonies included a nod to the 50 Pennsylvania athletes bound for the USA Games in Seattle, including Bedford County’s Christa Mereen, competing in athletics.

With all of the pageantry you’d expect from the Olympics: the parade of flags, the torch run, the Olympic oath, the ceremonies kick-off the weekend of competition, but also celebrate the exceptional partnerships that make the Special Olympics program possible.

The Sheetz Family provides extraordinary support for the program: premier sponsorship dollars, product donations including thousands of subs, and the contribution of hundreds of volunteer hours; but the company also furthers the values of Special Olympics through the Sheetz Family Award of Excellence.

The annual prize, handed out during the Summer Games, recognizes an athlete for outstanding sportsmanship and perseverance, courage and positive attitude, win or lose.

The partnership with Penn State is paramount as well, from the Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run (sponsored by Sheetz), a major fundraiser, to the university facilities used for the Summer Games, Special Olympics is made to feel right at home in Happy Valley.

Athletes stay in the dorms, compete on campus fields and enjoy meals, social activities and much more at PSU, which has hosted the games for more than three decades.

Nittany Lion student-athletes have volunteered over the years, and Opening Ceremonies feature words of inspiration from Penn State coaches.

Terry Smith, Penn State Assistant Head Football Coach spoke to the Special Olympics crowd about the importance of gratitude, and then was coaxed into joining in a performance of “Greased Lightning” by the Four Good Troupe, sponsored by the Centre Region Down Syndrome Society. The group followed that performance with Frozen’s “Let it Go,” with athletes around the arena joining in the popular anthem.

But perhaps the loudest and most dramatic moment of the night came when the Olympic torch entered the Ice Arena, escorted by Pittsburgh motorcycle police, sirens blaring. It was the culmination of the three-day Law Enforcement Torch Run, another remarkable relationship.

The torch delivered and ceremonies concluded, the delegations of athletes headed toward their dorms. Back in Pegula, Sue Paterno, a mainstay on the planning committee paused from rolling up delegation flags to graciously snap pictures with star-struck volunteers.

It was the start of a weekend of wonderful activities, but just a snapshot of the work done year round in support of this special population of Pennsylvania athletes.