Remember the old sports adage, It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game? Chuck Probst of Delmar does.
So do Sari Virkler of Altamont, Kelton Rose of Wilton and all the other athletes from around the state that competed at last weekend’s Special Olympics New York Summer Games in Albany.
For them, the goal isn’t so much to win a medal as it is to compete.
`I really don’t focus on the medals. I focus on how well we play,` said Probst, a member of the Capital District Devil Dogs basketball team.
`I really like to compete with other people and have a positive outlook,` said Virkler, a track and field athlete.
This year’s event drew more than 1,600 athletes to the region for two days of running, throwing, swimming,, basketball, tennis, gymnastics, weightlifting and volleyball competition ` not to mention dances, ice cream socials and other activities.
`I think it’s fun being with my teammates, going to the Victory Dance, going to the ice cream social and meeting people,` said Rose, who was attending his third Summer Games.
Even the coaches were less concerned with the medal count. They just wanted to see their athletes in action.
`It’s fun, it’s very rewarding, and I learn from it,` said Larry Shapiro, a long-time coach of the Saratoga County track and field team. `It’s a great experience.`
`I get so excited,` added Charlton resident Sharon Bialahoski, who is in her first season as coach of the Albany County swim team. `I’m up there cheering. I get goose bumps when I know they’re coming in (to the finish line).`
The athletes ` all of whom have varying degrees of intellectual disabilities ` are a mix of young and old. The Albany County-based Devil Dogs range in age from 16 to 56, something one would not see on a regular basketball team. But head coach Tom Nolan said that since most of his players have been with him for a long time, it’s not a problem.
`I’ve basically had the same team for 17 years now. After all those years, they know what they’re doing,` said Nolan, a Colonie resident.
Even Probst, a Devil Dogs rookie, has had prior basketball experience.
`I’ve been playing for years,` said Probst, who grew up in Troy. `I started learning to play hoops when I was 8 years old.`
The coaches work with the athletes for several months of the year to prepare them for the Special Olympics.
`The biggest challenge is that everyone that you’re working with is dealing at different (intellectual) levels,` said Shapiro, a Clifton Park resident. `The fact is, they are all individuals, and the ones who are here are doing it because they love it.`
`I think one of the things we stress in practice is good sportsmanship,` added Sue Handerhan, an Albany County track team coach from Menands. `We’d like to see them win medals, but we want them to do their best.`
And for many of the athletes, crossing the finish line or completing an event brings a huge smile to their faces.
`Even if I win or lose, I think I did what I could with my abilities, as well as my teammates’ and my coaches’ abilities,` said Probst. `I don’t think of it as one person. I think of it as a team.`
Or as Virkler put it, `I think everyone’s really special. I think everyone’s a winner.`
At the Special Olympics, that statement couldn’t be more true.“