Special Olympics brings celebration to central Pa.

Beth Armitage, an athlete from Monroe County, leads the Special Olympics oath at Thursday’s opening ceremony at Medlar Field
Beth Armitage, an athlete from Monroe County, leads the Special Olympics oath at Thursday’s opening ceremony at Medlar Field CDT photo

There was a llama running loose in Olympic Village.

Well, not “loose,” exactly. The beast in question was sequestered by a fence in a nice little patch of grass it shared with two ponies and goat just downwind of the popcorn cart.

On any other day, the sight of petting zoo animals (or a popcorn cart) outside of Johnston Commons on the Penn State campus might raise a few eyebrows, but on Thursday they were just three more guests of the 2015 Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games.

For about 2,500 athletes from 52 counties across the state, the Special Olympics Summer Games is the culminating event of the spring, a reward for weeks of intensive training and a season of hard-fought victories.

Roughly 8,000 volunteers, a majority of them local, have gathered in State College for the weekend to reward those efforts with a grand competition, and, of course, more than a little celebration.

“This event has been here for 46 years so it’s really become a part of State College culture,” Michelle Boone, senior sports director for Special Olympics Pennsylvania, said.

On Friday, Olympic Village was the hub of the festivities. Penn State’s East Halls lawn resembled a carnival ground, complete with dunk tanks, snow cones and of course, the aforementioned petting zoo — everything an athlete needs to unwind between bouts of intense competition.

Donna Newburg has been the co-coordinator of the Olympic Village alongside her husband, Steve, and daughter, Stacy, for three years.

They began working in January to line up volunteers like the Alpha Fire Company from State College to come and entertain the crowd.

Firefighter and EMT Emily Warren was taking pictures of her colleague as he demonstrated how to use a thermal imaging camera to a nearby crowd.

Warren is no stranger to the Special Olympics, and this year she and her colleagues pulled out all the stops. The exterior compartments of their fire truck were open, baring all kinds of specialized equipment — the kind of stuff that excites the young and the old alike.

Even the truck’s ladder was extended high in the air, a visual treat for passers-by.

“I’ve done this for three years and it’s always an awesome turnout,” Warren said.

The firefighters were stationed next to Dick Smith, a show car driver with Joe Gibbs Racing. Smith and his wife made the trip to State College all the way from Charlotte, N.C., toting a special cargo — a yellow and black retired NASCAR vehicle.

The Special Olympics are near and dear to the couple’s heart. Smith’s wife was a special education teacher for 36 years.

“To come to this, it was like Christmas for us,” Smith said

Volunteers like the Smiths are the backbone of the fun atmosphere that Newburg and her family are trying to create, an endeavor that she said brings the community together.

“It’s very rewarding. We do this for the athletes but we come away feeling very blessed,” Newburg said.

Fun and games and aside, the Special Olympics are still a competition, one that many of the athletes have fought long and hard to enter.

Special Olympics Pennsylvania offers 21 sports ranging from golf to equestrian competitions. Teams or individuals competing in more popular selections like basketball or bowling compete in sectional events each spring to determine who will be traveling to State College.

The Montgomery Knights were fresh off of a sectionals victory and a four-hour road trip. They were enthusiastically awaiting the opportunity to shoot some hoops and soak in the atmosphere.

Clad in their blue jerseys, the Montgomery County natives stood with coaches Kathie Kerper and Tom Grace, who led them in a rousing, unified cheer of their team moniker.

Morale was most definitely high.

“The best part is seeing our friends and having a good time all together,” Anil Misra said.