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As games close, Special Olympics brings hope, camaraderie

Lancaster County’s Isaac Orner juggles bean bags as he teammates cheer him on in the Olympic Village during the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games on Saturday, June 6, 2015.
Lancaster County’s Isaac Orner juggles bean bags as he teammates cheer him on in the Olympic Village during the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games on Saturday, June 6, 2015. CDT photo

Cheers — and the sound of bouncing basketballs — echoed throughout Penn State’s Intramural Building on Saturday morning.

The Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games was in full swing, with basketball teams from throughout the state locked in fierce but friendly competition.

Spanning the course of three days, 2,500 athletes from 52 different counties traveled to the Penn State campus to compete in sports ranging from golf to equestrian.

Saturday morning’s activities at the IM Building centered on a good old-fashioned game of hoops.

In one gymnasium, young teams from Lancaster and Philadelphia squared off on the hardwood, launching jump shots and feathering layups as coaches shouted instructions from the sidelines.

Allison Rutizer wore the blue and white of Philadelphia. She launched the ball into the air from just inside the three-point line, falling only slightly short of the basket.

The effort was met with a roar of cheers and encouragement from the audience of spectators and fellow athletes, who responded even more enthusiastically when Rutizer took the same shot minutes later and hit nothing but net.

Rutizer sported a broad smile before and after every shot she took — because she’s doing it all for her teammates.

“It feels like I’m in my own world and I’m trying to get all of my effort onto the ball,” Rutizer said.

This is Rutizer’s first Olympic weekend, a benchmark she shares with teammate James Shelton, who started attending team practices earlier this year.

Basketball is Shelton’s favorite sport and he is used to playing in much more modest facilities.

Shelton has been impressed with the size and scope of Penn State’s campus.

“I’ve been looking outside. I said, ‘Man, you have all of this in your backyard?’ ” Shelton said.

While Shelton and his teammates raced up and down the court, a team from Adams County watched from the sidelines, waiting for their turn to compete.

Their coach, Evan Bair, has been volunteering with Special Olympics since he was a senior in college.

“I fell in love with it and have returned ever since,” Bair said.

Four years later, he still enjoys the camaraderie that both the athletes and coaches share with one another on and off the court and is impressed by his team’s enthusiastic encouragement of one another regardless of skill or natural ability.

“Every single one of them says ‘good job,’ ” Bair said.

Bair and his players were preparing to face off against Clarion County for a bronze medal. He was confident that regardless of the outcome, both sides would have a good time.

“The losing and the winning teams walk off the court with their heads held high,” Bair said.

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