New Jersey hosting USA Special Olympics

On the awards podium is Pa.'s Traditional 5V5 Special Olympics soccer team, which clinched the Division 3 title.
On the awards podium is Pa.'s Traditional 5V5 Special Olympics soccer team, which clinched the Division 3 title. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2014

A mist of white chalk sprang from the hands of David Praiss as he dropped a barbell into a shoulder-high stand Thursday morning. He had just come back up from a squatting position when his knees nearly touched his bright-orange "Genuine Jersey" T-shirt - meaning the state, not the fabric. He had 120 kilograms, or 265 pounds, of weight on his shoulders.

As many champions do, Praiss pumped his arms in the air while cheers engulfed him inside Kendall Hall at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.

Praiss, a 41-year-old with Down syndrome from Haddon Heights, is 5-foot-5 and all muscle. He won three gold medals and one bronze. He has competed in Special Olympics events for 33 years, and it was not his first time winning.

"You see what I mean about muscle weakness?" Donald Praiss, David's father, said excitedly to those around him, referring to a common condition in those with Down syndrome - low muscle tone. "Bunch of baloney."

When he's not watching professional wrestling or working out, David works five days a week at the Abilities Center of Southern New Jersey.

The 2014 USA Special Olympics, being held this week in the Trenton area, is the third since the first USA games in 2006. It is also the largest USA Special Olympics ever, with a budget that exceeds $20 million, compared with $7 million to $8 million for the first two.

On a soccer pitch in Mercer County Park, a team of Philadelphia students fought its way to a 3-1 victory over Team Delaware to secure a silver medal.

"He got three goals," Dadley Thenor, the goalkeeper for Team Pennsylvania, said, pointing to his teammate, Ayodeji Obisanya.

"I feel good. I feel happy, I feel excited to win. I scored for the team," Obisanya said as he got off the team bus after the game.

Thenor, 20, and Obisanya, 16, both attend George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Thenor emigrated from Haiti in 2006. He had a club foot and mental disabilities. A U.S. citizen now, his foot was surgically corrected. He stashes the walker he usually needs behind the net when he plays keeper.

Obisanya, who has some health impairment, came to the United States from South Africa, arriving last fall at George Washington. He loves his family and his home country, takes SEPTA to and from school, and enjoys movies.

I've "never seen more smiles on all the athletes here," said John Creighton, the coach of the team.

The USA games are not a qualifier for the international Special Olympics. The next USA games will be in 2018, though the venue has yet to be announced. The next world games will be in 2015 in Los Angeles.

The larger USA games budget this year is the result of a reimagining of the sponsorship model the program uses, according to T.J. Nelligan, chairman and CEO of the 2014 USA Special Olympic Games.

"We changed the entire paradigm of how the Special Olympics goes out to raise money," said Nelligan, who had a son competing in bocce.

The organizers wanted to make sure that any company that donated money would be able to see the marketing benefits, he said.

The response has been good in Nelligan's view: 52 companies donated $100,000 to $1 million, and others gave in-kind donations. ShopRite donated all the food for the 10,000 volunteers and 3,500 athletes from all over the country, about 270 from New Jersey and 200 from Pennsylvania.

The WWE Network and Fox teamed up to broadcast a 30-second ad 5,000 times in 30 top U.S. media markets - at no cost to the program.

"The exposure is beyond our wildest dreams," Nelligan said. "That's one of our goals. There are so many people that should be in these programs, and it's free."

It gives those with disabilities the chance to make friends and feel like sports stars. The games around Trenton felt like a major sporting event, with large, stylized signs and graphics.

The games are expected to draw more than 70,000 spectators during the week of competitions which ends Friday, with bocce, bowling, and power-lifting.

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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