HIDDEN VALLEY —
Building bridges between world cultures with sporting competition is the heart of the Olympic Games. Much like the five-person Special Olympics logo, which signifies equality and athletes from each of the five nations that founded the program, the Games were designed to foster international relations.
Special Olympians who recently returned from the 2013 World Special Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea got a taste of the globe-trotting lifestyle. Gold medals and 13-hour plane rides aside, the experience was one they won’t soon forget.
“It was an amazing event that brought over 111 countries together to participate in a variety of winter sports,” said Debbie Phillips, a Winter Games alpine skiing coach and Special Olympics coordinator for the Child and Career Development Center in Chester County.
Phillips has been coaching Special Olympians for more than 15 years and before that, she competed on the international stage for the U.S. Field Hockey Team.
She said representing her country was a “phenomenal” experience that she was happy to share with the athletes she coaches.
“I just really enjoy working with the athletes,” she said. “Having these athletes experience at their level what I went through just brings joy - to see their commitment to a sport and to be able to excel.”
Between Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, approximately one dozen athletes were chosen at random from the pool of 2012 Winter Games finalists. Team USA brought the second largest delegation, right behind the host country, and a total of 3,200 athletes and another 1,200 coaches and volunteers descended on Pyeongchang at the end of January.
The preparations started over a year ago, when the chosen athletes got fitted for uniforms and got to training.
“It was pretty intense,” said Phillips - and that was before she kept track of the Olympians on foreign soil for about a week.
“A lot of the coaches have done this for a number of years. They know what the expectations are and what their responsibilities are, but it’s a team effort to put this all together,” she said.
Aside from competing, the athletes were charged mainly with having a good time and soaking in the local culture.
“First, the travel experience was a big thing for them, and being on an airplane for 13 hours and seeing the different language signs,” she said of the impressions made during the athletes’ travels. “We did a host-town celebration where we got to see some local culture, which they really enjoyed. Definitely the food was an experience.”
“It was nasty,” said Lisa Robinson, one of the local American athletes sent to South Korea. “I didn’t like it.”
Robinson’s event is Alpine Super G - she’s been working with her “awesome” coach, Phillips, since she started skiing in the Games eight years ago. Even though she took a gold and two bronze medals from the World Games, she said nothing beats the comforts of home.
“The cooking’s better, and I’ve got my family and friends.”