NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The volunteer spirit that provides the backbone for the Special Olympics was on full display this week when the Olympic torch reached downtown Newark, carried by a team of law enforcement officers to herald the arrival of the weeklong national competition.
Nowhere was it better exemplified than in Barb Stapleton, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper who told a crowd outside the Prudential Center how a colleague initially cajoled her into getting involved.
Before long, she said, she found herself participating in a polar bear plunge for the cause – in full uniform, no less. She spoke with visible emotion of her experiences with Special Olympians, including a swimmer who competed in the backstroke because his condition only allowed him to swim that way.
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”That is really what this is all about,” she said.
About 3,500 athletes are descending on New Jersey for the games, along with 10,000 volunteers and 1,000 coaches. They’ll be competing in sports ranging from swimming and track and field to flag football and bocce. The games are being held in several locations in the central part of the state, including Rider University, The College of New Jersey and Princeton University.
The Prudential Center will host the games’ opening ceremony Sunday night, a multimedia event hosted by actress Brooklyn Decker and reigning NBA rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams and scheduled to feature appearances by ”Glee” star Jane Lynch and the cast of Broadway’s ”Wicked.”
Alex Hines, 17, of northern New Jersey, started competing in volleyball about four years ago in a local program and admits she was nervous and unsure whether she would fit in. Today, the prospect of competing on a much bigger stage didn’t sound daunting.
”I was terrified of being hit by the ball,” she recalled Friday. ”Now, the funny thing is I’m excited about this, and not nervous at all. I feel like I’m in a comfort zone and ready to conquer it.”
The athletes will get first-class treatment: Several hundred will be flown on private airplanes to Trenton-Mercer Airport, and they’ll be treated to a boat ride around the Statue of Liberty, a minor-league baseball game and their own mini athletes’ village, complete with boardwalk, on the College of New Jersey’s campus.
The Special Olympics, which traces its history to the 1960s, has mostly been a state-level staple in the U.S. The 2014 USA Games are the third nationwide competition, following previous U.S. games hosted by Iowa in 2006 and Nebraska in 2010. New Jersey was selected over Boston for this year’s event.
Longtime sports marketing executive T.J. Nelligan spearheaded New Jersey’s effort, which has raised about $20 million in sponsorships from Prudential, Toys `R’ Us and other corporate partners, he said.
Nelligan has seen the benefits firsthand through his son, Sean, who is a Special Olympics participant.
”When you have a child with intellectual disabilities, from zero to five years you spend all your time going to doctors and therapists and it’s not fun,” Nelligan said. ”You don’t know if their dreams are ever going to be a reality. But with Special Olympics they build confidence, they have a lot more friends, they have more acceptance in the community – all the things that sports do for everybody else in this country.”