Saturday, June 11, 2011

Special Olympians brace for opening on TCNJ's Ewing campus

After months of training, hours in the pool and a lifetime of dedication, Roberto Hernandez Jr. had reached the pinnacle of his sport. The gold medal was his.

“I looked up at the sky, toward God,” Hernandez recalled later of his moment on the podium, waiting to accept the top prize of his sport: “I can feel the burn on my legs and arms but it doesn’t hurt at all. I feel so happy — it feels awesome.”

It was 2005 when Hernandez won what would be the first of 19 gold medals in the backstroke and 15-meter freestyle swimming events. This year, the autistic 18-year-old is hoping to add to that impressive record after the Special Olympics New Jersey Summer Games open at The College of New Jersey today.

He will be among 2,300 athletes from around the state vying to be faster, higher and stronger than the rest throughout the two-day event. The games will include swimming, bocce, gymnastics, powerlifting, softball, tennis and track and field competitions.

“I practice very hard and I work very hard,” said Hernandez, who plays basketball during the winter games. “No pain, no gain.”

And while his participation in the games certainly boosts Hernandez’s physical health, his father, Roberto Hernandez Sr., believes the emotional aspect of playing and practicing may be even more valuable for his son.

“If it wasn’t for the Special Olympics organization, I don’t know how Roberto would be able to interact with friends,” said Hernandez, a former basketball coach for the winter games.

Along with making friends, Hernandez said the games provide a wonderful opportunity for his son to learn life lessons such as working as part of a team, communicating with others and respecting others, all while having fun.

His son, in particular, has gained the confidence to go out to the local store and speak with the workers there, thanks to his participation in the games, Hernandez said.

Heather O’Connell has also noticed positive changes since her 9-year-old daughter, Delaney, began competing in several track and field events at last year’s games.

Delaney was born with Williams syndrome, which causes acute attention deficit disorder and some developmental delays. She takes a longer time than most to learn things, said O’Connell, a track and field coach for the games. She said teaching her daughter to begin running at the sound of the gun, and then getting through a 50-meter sprint without getting distracted, was “very difficult.” There were races she lost, and then she would cry.


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