29th April and as so often happens at weekends, I’m double-booked and juggling priorities. Weekends are when most sporting events take place and the end of April and the first half of May this year are proving busy! Not helped by the 2017 calendar which on three consecutive weekends drops our annual Bank Holiday reunion with university friends, my wife’s birthday and our wedding anniversary into a heady mix of great sporting events going on locally.
On this particular Saturday I’ve got an all-day pass to get to a really important sporting event - as long as (on pain of death) I’m in West Mersea in Essex before 11.00pm to join the reunion. But worth it for what I’m about to experience: the Special Olympics at Northwood Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent.
Last year, courtesy of Harry Pointon, the North Staffs Special Olympics coach, I got some lovely quotes from competitors which we turned into a short piece on our Sporting Stories site (you can read it here). This year Harry and his fellow committee members have invited me along to a big meet so I can see for myself the Special Olympics athletes in action at the Northwood track.
I arrive at Northwood over an hour before the first race starts, but already it’s a hive of activity with volunteers from the two host Special Olympics clubs, North Staffs and Stafford, getting everything ready for the day. Nine other clubs, from across the West Midlands and North Wales, will be arriving imminently and in total there will be over 200 athletes competing. Add to that their coaches, carers, families and lots of volunteers and the stadium soon feels very busy.
Harry introduces me to the North Staffs team as they arrive and I get a big wave from them as they set up their base in the stadium. Speaking to them and their carers, everyone is really excited by the day and the prospect of competing and winning medals. As the time for the event to start draws nearer, I start to see more and more familiar faces from the area: the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, Ian Dudson; the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Anthony Munday; Jean Gough, Sir Stanley Matthews’ daughter and patron of the Sir Stanley Matthews Coaching Foundation. And also there in support are a small crowd of former Lord Mayors and their consorts – Tom Brennan, who worked so hard to get Northwood Stadium built in the first place; Derek Capey; Terry Follows; and Kath Banks. They all supported the Special Olympics while they were in office and have never stopped coming and giving support since. That says so much about the generosity of spirit in the City – people care up here.
All to soon I’m in the thick of the event – which feels just like any other big athletics meet. Loads of excited, nervous, happy sportspeople everywhere, all wanting to do their best for their club, their friends and themselves. Most of the events are very much the ones you’d expect: 100m, 200m, 800m, 100m relay, shot put; but ones like the 50m walk, soft ball throwing and standing long jump mean that even the more severely disabled athletes can compete on their own terms. It’s wonderful to see everyone participating and, when not competing, cheering the athletes on from the stands.
Over the course of the day I wander around speaking to all the teams' coaches, many of whom have great stories of their club’s history or of their star athletes. Stafford even have their own world champion – Cameron Sargent, who competed in and won the Special Olympics World figure-skating competition in 2013. Cameron is there with his mum Alison: it is great to see so many parents and other family members cheering on their sons and daughters. The coach of Special Olympics Solihull encourages me to go and have a chat with the father of Aafreen, one of their team members. Khalil is right up at the top of the stand with a great view of the stadium, and couldn’t praise Special Olympics enough: in his words, “I believe the country would be much better off if we could bottle these values and expose them to the wider public, as it makes our society more caring and sympathetic to the needs of others before ourselves.” Well said.
I’ll be writing and posting a fuller story of the day in due course, with contributions from more of the Special Olympics clubs and more quotes from athletes, but I’ll close with some words from Ann, the mother of George, a 56-year-old North Staffs Special Olympian with Down’s Syndrome. She said that with the support of Special Olympics, “George has achieved everything in life he needed to achieve”, and she continued “people like Harry and the carers put so much in”. She added, “Harry is a wonderful, wonderful man.”
I’ll second that, and extend it to North Staffs Special Olympics club as a whole – I met most of them at the event and they really are wonderful people, wonderful carers, wonderful volunteers and wonderful coaches… and I'm sure the same applies to all the clubs involved on the day.