Special Olympics attracts thousands



Caroline Goldstein


Villanova hosted the 22nd annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania Fall Festival last weekend. With 4,000 volunteers and 1,000 athletes, Fall Festival is the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world.

“This event at Villanova is the athletes of Pennsylvania’s favorite event,” said Lori Blake, committee adviser for Fall Festival.

Competition began on Friday afternoon and continued through Sunday. Events included soccer, volleyball, long-distance running, roller-skating, power lifting and bocce. Nearly every county in Pennsylvania was represented at this year’s Fall Festival. Athletes range in age from children as young as 8 years old to adults in their 70s. Most athletes are adults, according to senior and Fall Festival Director Charlie Hannon.

The theme of this year’s Fall Festival was the 1950s, and the festival officially started on Friday night at the Opening Ceremonies in the Pavilion. Dick Vermeil, former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, spoke at the ceremony. The Olympic Torch was also lit that evening.

When athletes were not competing, they spent time in Olympic Town, commonly referred to as O-town, in the Quad. About 50 clubs and organizations sponsored booths in O-town where athletes could participate in a variety of activities, ranging from arts and crafts to playing mini-golf to getting hot chocolate and milkshakes.

There was also a dance on Saturday night for all of the athletes. This was the first year that there was live music at the dance, provided by an Elvis impersonator, who also made appearances throughout the weekend in Olympic Town.

This year’s Fall Festival saw a few changes from previous years. 

The roller-skating event, which previously took place at a venue in Mount Laurel, N.J., was held at the geographically closer Marple Sports Arena, according to Hannon. This was the first year for a new health and wellness program called Active Athletes, as well. Another first was that Tom Mogan, director of student development at Villanova, was named to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania’s Board of Directors. 

This is the first time a representative from the University has served on the board.

“It’s kind of sealed the partnership,” Blake said.

As in past years, Fall Festival partnered with The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr for several events throughout the weekend. Shipley provided venues for the bocce and seven vs. seven soccer competitions. The school also provided lunches, volunteers and their own Olympic Town during the festival.

Radnor High School provided an indoor facility for soccer in the event of rain.

Blake said that there were volunteers from most of the high schools and colleges in the area during the weekend.

“Everybody in the community is on board,” Blake said.

 One thing that did not change is what Fall Festival means to all of the athletes and volunteers.

“At Special Olympics, especially the Fall Festival, the athletes can show off all of their abilities and demonstrate all that they can do,” Hannon said.

Molly Tonkin, an athlete from the Harrisburg area, has been competing at Fall Festival for six years. This year, she won a gold medal in the bocce competition.

While Tonkin was excited about her gold medal, that was not her favorite part about Fall Festival.

“We get to meet new people and learn new sports,” Tonkin said.

The athletes also build lasting relationships with the volunteers and Fall Festival committee members, according to Blake.

 Liz Smith, an athlete from Swarthmore, Pa., acts as a Global Messenger for Special Olympics Pennsylvania. As a Global Messenger, Smith travels around Pennsylvania acting as a spokesperson for the organization.

Smith noted how the athletes love being around the Villanova students and also how the volunteers enjoy being around the athletes.

“[The volunteers] love it every year,” Smith said.

The athletes and their accomplishments during this weekend inspire the volunteers, Blake said.

“[The athletes] do things people say they can’t do, and they do it really well,” she said.

One moment from a Fall Festival that stood out to Blake occurred about 10 years ago during a five vs. five soccer game. One athlete fell and got hurt. The players from the opposing team helped their injured opponent into the golf cart to be taken for treatment. At the end of the game, the two teams did not just high-five but instead hugged one another.

“It was really nice to see,” Blake said.

For all those involved in Fall Festival, the weekend has a significant meaning, according to Hannon.

“This is the one weekend that shows you what’s important in life,” Hannon said.