Special Olympics athletes shine in student documentary “Gold Mettle”

Caroline Foley

It would be nearly impossible to attend the University without knowing the school’s distinct relationship to Special Olympics. Just this past year, the University hosted over 1,100 athletes and 6,000 volunteers as the largest student-run Special Olympics in the world. Each semester, student committee members tirelessly plan opening ceremonies, O-Town and award ceremonies and run safety and health training in preparation for the games. However, the 2015 games were a little different. 

In 2015, a small crew of students was spotted filming intense soccer games on the field. For 15 weeks, the students of John O’Leary, Ph.D., Stephen McWilliams and Matthew Marencik followed the Delaware County 11 on 11 and 7 on 7 Special Olympics soccer teams to their final games at Villanova Fall Festival. The end result of the student filmmakers’ work, “Gold Mettle,” plays homage to the Special Olympics athlete oath, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” On Dec. 9, the students of Stork Studios will screen “Gold Mettle” at 9 p.m. in Connelly Cinema to the public.

“The film recognizes the competitive spirit of the athletes and their drive to win, but more importantly, it recognizes the perseverance they display on and off the field,” Director Nick Carney ’16 said. Carney and McWilliams spent much of their time working with LEVEL, a student group bridging the gap between students with various abilities and disabilities, and with Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Through their personal connections to various organizations and athletes, Carney and McWilliams saw the event as a perfect idea for a documentary.

The filmmakers introduce the Delaware County team as having won gold at Villanova’s Fall Festival for the past four consecutive years and spotlight several of the athletes such as Al Davis, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Smith, David Wilt, Jake Spencer, Aaron Brooke and John “J.O.” O’Malley. Each athlete has a story supported by some of their family members and other influential figures in their lives and the organization.

For example, Jake, who has Down Syndrome, leads the 7 by 7 soccer team for Delaware County. His mother notes the immense amount of loneliness people with disabilities experience, whether it is through exclusion or bullying.

Aaron, a new athlete to the soccer program, has both intellectual disabilities and autism. His family discusses his past behavior leading to the decision to look at bringing Aaron to an adult home. “Part of you feels like, did you fail as a parent because he’s not here?” Aaron’s father asked. “[Aaron’s mother] and I had a real difficult time with it.”

Lizzie has cerebral palsy. “It wasn’t the norm to have people like Elizabeth to stay in society,” Lizzie’s father says in the film, “As one doctor said, ‘We have places for people like this.’ They weren’t unkind about it. They were realistic in terms of what they knew to be the norm in their day, which is, ‘Well these people can’t do much.’”

Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics, recalls a chilling history of the mistreatment of people with intellectual disabilities in the beginning of the film. “For hundreds of years, people with intellectual disabilities were treated as scapegoats, labeled with horrible words, treated like animals, clustered into prison-like cells, and left in really hopeless and unconscionable conditions,” Shriver says in the film.

Shriver, the University’s commencement speaker in 2012 and honorary degree recipient, is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the driving force behind the creation of Special Olympics movement and President John F. Kennedy’s panel on people with intellectual disabilities.

“Having the opportunity to interview Tim Shriver was an incredible honor for us,” Nick said. “We were fortunate enough to interview him in the office of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. Their family has done so much for people with intellectual disabilities and we were honored to be in the presence of someone with so much passion and dedication to the organization.”

The film editors weave Shriver’s interview between snapshots of various athletes creating a validating effect to the experiences of those with intellectual disabilities.

“We made this film for families and students living with disabilities,” Assistant Director Thomas San Nicolas ‘17 said. “They go unrecognized and under-appreciated for the lives that they live and the work that they give every single day.”

Student documentaries from the University have screened across the globe –some advancing as far as finalists in the Student Academy Award competition. Villanova students have created over ten documentaries focusing on topics like homelessness, disabilities, poverty and gun-violence in films such as “Coming of the DL” and “In Transition.” Each film aims to shed light on a people or local organizations contributing to communities in a positive way by empowering their subjects through advocacy filmmaking.

“The athletes and their families showed incredible courage and compassion in sharing their stories and talents,” Assistant Director Peter Prokop ’17 recalled. “In a world that can be so quick to assume and misunderstand, everyone we met was even quicker to offer a smile and a hug.”