A once in a lifetime experience with Special Olympics Pennsylvania

As a reporter covering a professional soccer team – I talk a lot about perseverance and overcoming obstacles – but this past weekend I was taught a big lesson about resilience -- and love by some very special soccer players.

Every year, Major League Soccer’s charitable arm MLS WORKS, sponsors unified matches between Special Olympic teams across the country to give their athletes and partners an opportunity of a lifetime. This year I was fortunate enough to join the Special Olympics Pennsylvania (SOPA) representative team from George Washington High School on their trip across country to play against the Special Olympics team from Colorado.

The team from George Washington High School was comprised of seven athletes from the school’s special needs programs and five student volunteer partners who were there to help them along the way.

I was already pretty familiar with the Special Olympics organization having volunteered during high school, but I could have never foreseen the level of compassion and respect that were displayed between the students over the weekend. 

Our trip began on Friday afternoon, meeting at the Philadelphia International Airport departing to Denver, Colorado. As a newcomer to the group I was instantly greeted with open arms and a big welcome. After a four and a half hour flight, we landed in Denver and our weekend officially begun – topped off with a meet and great visit from the Philadelphia Union First Team once we arrived at our hotel.

With trips to a Colorado Rockies games, group breakfasts, sightseeing around Denver, and playing in a nearby park – we were always on the go. But the real reason we made the trek out West wasn’t to be tourists, but to play a unified match under the big lights at Dicks Sporting Good’s Park – the same venue the Philadelphia Union would be playing their match earlier that evening.

Excitement about Saturday night’s game was buzzing as soon as the team woke up that morning. During their warmup session at a local park I talked to a couple of the teachers and coaches who were beyond proud of how far this group has come. They told me how the relationships between the athletes and partners have grown over the school year, with mutual respect and trust being at the forefront of their friendships.

After watching the Union secure a 1-1 draw against Colorado Rapids, it was SOPA’s turn on the field. Dressed in their official Union jerseys they headed onto the pitch for their big moment – amplified by the fact that the entire Union First Team were watching as fans.

Smiles and some pretty impressive moves highlighted the game, with goal celebrations that rival some of the best in MLS. And to top it all off, a medal ceremony featuring head coach Jim Curtin concluded the evening. If emotions were running high earlier that day – it was nothing compared to how the teachers and coaches felt watching a year’s worth of work and comradery culminate right in front of their eyes. 

The students, both athletes and partners, I met this past weekend were some of the greatest young adults I have ever come in contact with. The athletes were beaming with pride, some of them sleeping in their gold medals and wearing them onto the plane Sunday morning. And for many of the partners, they hope to continue to bring awareness to groups like Special Olympics by majoring in Special Education in college next year.

Yes, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for some of these students to travel and play a game in a professional stadium – but for me it was so much more. I feel humbled to have been a part of their experience and honored to be able to tell their story through the Philadelphia Union.  Among many other things, this team from George Washington High School showed me how far people can go with mutual respect and admiration for one another and I will always carry that with me.


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