By Bill McCann
Our Phillies and Eagles have been making news this fall and with good reason. But there is another group of PA athletes making big news too. They met at Villanova University over the first weekend in November this year for the thirty-fourth time in the Fall Fest of Special Olympics Pennsylvania.
I visited Fall Fest to learn more and to talk to some of the participants. As someone who is totally blind and who has participated in a range of recreational sports from swimming rock-climbing to water skiing, I feel a natural affinity to these athletes and their friends and families. My own wonderful parents gave their blind son a bicycle for his sixth Christmas and my dad taught me to ride it that spring.
On a warm and sunny November Saturday, Hailey Fuzak, Director of Marketing and Communications for Special Olympics Pennsylvania, welcomed me to Fall Fest 2022. Immediately on arrival at Villanova, I could feel the excitement and positive vibes in the air. There really was something special going on with all of the clapping, cheering and high-energy music surging. Over a thousand athletes, their friends, and families, plus some three thousand volunteers had taken over the campus and were clearly having a rollicking good time.
We went over to the Connolly Center where the crowd of spectators maintained a hush while each powerlifter had a turn and then erupted into enthusiastic applause after each display of strength. Ms. Fuzak introduced me to Coach Pete Wilson from Lebanon Valley and two of his star athletes, Kyale and Matt. Coach Wilson let me know that he expects Matt to take the gold medal for powerlifting after bench pressing 220 pounds and “dead lifting” 264 pounds.
Kyale, another powerlifter, shared how much he enjoys training with his coach regularly a couple of nights per week. Kyale especially enjoys the social aspects of these events which have become not only chances for competition but reunions with friends.
In fact, athletes compete in seven sports: Bocci, long distance running and walking, powerlifting, roller-skating, soccer and volleyball. And, for the first time this year at Fall Fest, athletes are competing in flag football. Fall Fest is the largest, student-run special Olympics event in the world. Villanova students actively plan for Fall Fest throughout the year and pitch in in great numbers to make it all come together.
Coach Wilson expressed his appreciation for the local and national Knights of Columbus support for Special Olympics. For years now members of our own Knights of Columbus Council 13716 have served as volunteers for this uplifting event.
Mr. Wilson decided to get directly involved as a coach after retiring a few years ago as a way to give back. His daughter has participated in the program as an athlete for the past fifteen years. Working with athletes with intellectual disabilities has taught him patience; patience with them and patience with himself.
Marketing Director, Hailey Fuzak, who has been with the organization for three years now, clearly just loves her job. I asked her how it has changed her. She replied that her experience has strengthened her own personal conviction that everyone matters. “We all have different talents and strengths and there is no reason why everyone can’t be included.” Special Olympics works to get that message out. They practiced what they preach, as she says, by letting the athletes lead the way.
Everyone involved in Special Olympics is echoing the words of Our Lord” “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Fall Fest was all about celebrating life. Congratulations and commendations to all involved including our own brother Knights of the St. Isaac Jogues Council 13716.