Mike Candelaria, Orlando Sentinel
Their long days began about 5 a.m., with a walk to breakfast at 6 a.m., followed by a 45-minute bus ride to be in the pool for competition warmups at 8.
Yet for the three swimmers from the Aquatic Center YMCA of Central Florida — Alexandra Cooper, Nicole Hogan and Ian Soules — they were living a dream: participating in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games from July 1-6 in Seattle. The games drew more than 4,000 athletes and coaches from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Cooper has Down syndrome, while Hogan has a cognitive disability and Soules has autism. All are in their early 20s. Never mind that they were medal winners in their respective races. The event, from start to finish, served as a potentially life-changing experience.
“It’s hard to put into words the feeling when you walk into a stadium and there’s 50,000 people in there, cheering everyone on,” said swimming coach Apryle Nickson of Orlando, who helped lead a team of seven swimmers from across Florida. “It didn’t matter what state it was — everybody was cheering for everyone.
“When you walk in that stadium and everyone is cheering, and the kids are waving to everyone, this is their time to shine. … It’s eye-opening for them to see all these people on their feet, cheering for them.”
That was just the start.
A total of 14 sports were played at the Special Olympics USA Games. While the host state of Washington had the most athletes, Florida was second, including 53 athletes from Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Volusia counties. According to published reports, the games were the biggest sporting event held in the Seattle area in more than 25 years.
The Florida contingent stayed in new campus dorms at the University of Washington, unused even by students there, and they attended a Seattle Mariners baseball game, among other activities.
Ian Soules. (Handout)
“When I got home, I felt proud of myself,” said Cooper, who earned a gold medal, a bronze and a ribbon, to go along with her memories. Cooper added that her favorite part of the entire week was Kayla Jade singing “This Is Me” at the Opening Ceremony.
“Best time of my whole life!” exclaimed Hogan, who garnered two ribbons and a gold medal. “I’ve met lots of new friends from all over the USA. Makes me very happy!”
Soules also medaled in his three races.
“It is life-changing,” said Charlotte Day, director of Special Olympics Orange County. “Some of these athletes, for the very first time, are staying away from home. And they’re meeting athletes from everywhere around the country. It’s very important to them. A lot of them have never been exposed to this in their life.”
The youngest of Nickson’s seven swimmers was 16; the oldest was 50. Nickson said she was struck by the camaraderie that developed within the Florida team and with other teams throughout the week. She was particularly moved by their support for other athletes during the awards ceremonies.
“When our athletes were on the awards stand, they clapped for every single person who was getting a medal or a ribbon,” Nickson said.
“They understood the importance of cheering on others; whether they beat you or not didn’t matter,” she said. “And none of them seemed to care about [the results]. They were honestly happy for everyone.”
Tennis coach Cathy Tagliareni of Sanford agreed.
From left: Santiago Castro and Brittany Tagliareni in the front, with Ryan Smith and Jonathan Doring in the back. (Handout)
The four players on her team, including her daughter, range in age from 21 to 38 and collectively deal with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome. Only daughter Brittany Tagliareni lives locally; the others came from throughout the state. Bonds formed quickly.
“It was seriously incredible,” said Cathy Tagliareni, noting that while parents in attendance could “sign out” their children for family time at the event, none chose to do so.
“[Parents] didn’t want the athletes to miss their time together. I had all these release forms, and [the parents] didn’t take them at all,” Tagliareni said.
Each of the tennis players won gold, with Brittany Tagliareni even being highlighted on ESPN’s national TV broadcast.
In May, officials announced that the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games will take place in Orlando from June 5-10.
Nickson, who has been involved with Special Olympics for about two decades, plans to help out but not as an official coach. Like many of the athletes who participated this year, she has memories that will last a lifetime.
“Sitting there at the Closing Ceremony, I was thinking, ‘This is amazing,’ ” she said.