Special Olympics Returns to In-Person Celebration for 33rd Annual Fall Festival


Courtesy of Villanova University Special Olympics

The University hosted the 33rd Special Olympics Fall Festival, the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world.

Nicole Celis

This past weekend, the University hosted the 33rd Special Olympics Fall Festival, the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world. This year marked a monumental moment in the Special Olympics community because it was the first time since 2019 that athletes were back on campus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletes from all over Pennsylvania traveled to the University for a weekend of competition, celebration and community.

Athletes were able to reconnect with the University after two years apart. This reunion was an important one in the relationship between the Special Olympics and Villanova community. Jared Brewer, this year’s Fall Festival Director, said it was “like no other as it was a celebration of resiliency, hope and inclusion after nearly two years of no in-person events.”

The weekend kicked off on Friday with the torch run. Athletes and law enforcement ran from Philadelphia to the University with the Olympic torch and were met with hundreds of volunteers cheering them on. Later that evening, the torch was lit at the Opening Ceremony. Each county was represented by a few athletes, Local Program Hosts (LPHs) and a varsity athlete at the county procession. The night was packed with speeches, a Unified basketball scrimmage and an LPH flash mob to get the weekend started.  

This year’s theme was “Let your colors shine through, be vibrantly you,” and this theme could be felt all across campus, from the decorations to the colors of the volunteer shirts. There was no place that this theme was more evident than in Olympic Town, or O-Town for short. Dozens of clubs and organizations across campus hosted booths for athletes to stop at for a variety of activities, such as bracelet making, cookie decorating, games and more. Athletes were able to express themselves differently at every booth they visited. They could dance with friends, both old and new. They were even surprised by an LPH flash mob, an all-freshman group of volunteers that were tasked with cheering on the athletes all weekend long. 

Over the weekend, Fall Festival hosted more than 550 athletes, thanks to roughly 2,000 on and off-campus volunteers. Athletes competed in a variety of sports, including soccer, bocce, volleyball, long distance running and walking, powerlifting and roller skating. This event was made possible by the student volunteers that organized the weekend: the Committee made up of 102 students that work tirelessly for months planning the weekend, Volunteer Coordinators (VCs), LPHs and Inclusion Crew. 

Planning took place amid the pandemic, which created the need for a mask and vaccination requirement. A diverse team of students were tasked with planning every aspect of the weekend, from the competition, housing accommodations for athletes and coaches, to the ceremonies and everything in between. They did this at a time like no other.

“Despite working through a unique planning year with additional tasks to ensure the safety of everyone, all expectations for this weekend were completely exceeded as the spirit of Special Olympics at Villanova returned,” Brewer said.

The sense of community that Fall Fest provided continued into Saturday night at the Victory Dance, a special event for the athletes and those that planned the weekend. Athletes were able to celebrate all of their accomplishments and dance the night away. Justin Pritikin, the Head of Human Resources Committee, explains the feeling that the weekend brought. 

“This year, the hugs felt more powerful, the dancing was more free and celebration was louder than ever,” Pritikin said. 

The last of the weekend’s competition wrapped up on Sunday, followed by awards ceremonies and the Closing Ceremony to end a jam-packed weekend. Athletes hugged their friends at Villanova goodbye as they looked toward another year of training before the next Fall Festival. For now, they are left with memories of competing, dancing at O-Town and the cheering of the crowd.