Special Olympics Coaching: A Special Calling
It takes a special person to care for and nurture people who are mentally challenged. The USGTF is proud to have one such individual among its ranks. Pat Church, USGTF Level IV member from Eugene, Oregon, completed a once-in-a-lifetime mission this past year as a golf coach at the Special Olympics in Athens, Greece, this past July.
“Every day was a new adventure, more incredible than the last,” Church remarked. “The people of Greece were so accommodating and warm.” The experience is one that Church will remember forever.
Starting out at the Baltimore airport, the team and coaches left for Shannon Airport, Ireland, where they had a fi ve-hour delay. Church and the other coaches were taken with the demeanor of the athletes, as she pointed out that most of us would be fretting about the delay.
Not the Special Olympians. They took it in stride. Church described how they went on playing cards or their video games, and one group took to doing their karate exercises right there in the terminal.
Walking into the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony, Church portrayed a scene that provided an “Oh, my gosh!” moment and plenty of goosebumps. There were thousands of people screaming and flashbulbs were going off everywhere. Stevie Wonder entertained the masses with his music.
The golf competition was held at a course that had a magnificent view of the Aegean Sea. USA golfers won a total of 8 gold medals, 7 silver, 4 bronze, and 3 fourth-place ribbons. To be selected, athletes must win gold medals at the state level. Next, their participation depends upon how well they would do outside of their comfort zones of home, friends, and family for three weeks. Special Olympians come in all ages, and the golf contingent was no exception, as it ranged from ages 19-50.
The athletes stayed at the Olympic Village – the very same Olympic Village that hosted the athletes of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. Church and the athletes also had some time for sightseeing, as they visited the Parthenon and Acropolis.
During the Closing Ceremony, a tradition is that the athletes trade clothes. Church commented on how almost none of the athletes left with the same clothes that they brought. The golf team’s shorts, provided by Loudmouth Golf, proved a big hit as no one mistook the US team for any other.
One thing that particularly struck Churchwas the planning and logistics that went into the Games. Coordinating the movements and activities of 7,000 athletes, 2,500 coaches and chaperones, and 22 different sporting venues was a monumental task, but it all went off with nary a glitch. “It was incredible,” she remarked.
A lesson that Church and the other coaches soon learned was to take their cues from the athletes instead of vice-versa. If the athletes were happy, the coaches knew they were going in the right direction with their charges. The youngest golfer, 19, took a particular liking to Church and considered her his “grandma,” something that took Church aback until she realized that, well, she could be his grandma, considering their age differences.
Upon arriving home in Oregon, Church found that she will get to relive the experience for a long time through the University of Oregon. One student has made the Special Olympics a project of his, and Church is aiding in the effort.
After a whirlwind year being involved with the United States Special Olympics golf team, Church is sure to appreciate some downtime, but then again, it would surprise no one if she found some other worthy project to attend to.