Vinnie Golda gained the confidence to give a speech and land a job.
Maria Gruendel learned to live a healthier lifestyle.
Joe Corsitto decided to try new things, such as driving.
The Special Olympics provides much more than the chance to take home medals.
Golda, Gruendel and Corsitto were among the nearly 2,000 athletes and coaches who took part in Special Olympics New York’s State Summer Games on Saturday at the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst. At UB Stadium, participants sprinted around the track, heaved the shot put and leaped in long jump. Inside Alumni Arena, they fired up shots on the basketball courts and swam races in the pool. At the Student Union, they stood on a stage and lifted as much as they could.
But most of all, participants benefited from simply being part of the competition and receiving all of the hugs, high-fives and words of encouragement that come with it.
“The Special Olympics and sports really bring out the athlete in everyone,” said Amy Neveaux, senior director of development for the Western Region of Special Olympics New York. It gives you a sense of family, teamwork and friendship. “These are all honest, true, loyal, unconditional people, and this makes them feel accepted.
“It’s special to me because I see the difference that Special Olympics makes,” she added.
The games also featured bowling at AMF Thruway Lanes in Cheektowaga, gymnastics competition at Flips Gymnastics in Lockport and volleyball matches at Buffalo Niagara Court Center in West Seneca.
It was the third straight year Western New York hosted the games and the seventh time in 27 years. Competitors ranged from 6-year-olds to adults.
Just a few years ago, Golda would be seen walking around with a stack of books in his hands, a backpack over his shoulders and headphones in his ears. The 23-year-old from Grand Island kept his distance from others and wasn’t much for long conversations.
The quietness and seclusion are gone now, replaced with confidence.
Golda dribbled, shot and called out plays on the basketball court while playing for the Canisius gold division team. He interacted with his eight teammates, who are bound for the Special Olympic USA Games June 14-21 in Princeton, N.J. He cheered with them in the pregame huddle and even wore a red shooting sleeve, just like the pros.
“It’s amazing,” Golda said of playing, noting how much he loves meeting friends and spending time with them.
“A lot of teams come out and [there is] a lot of good competition out here. We kind of go all out.”
During Friday night’s opening ceremonies, Golda carried the torch and lit the cauldron in the Law Enforcement Torch Run. A global messenger for Special Olympics, Golda gave a speech before 700 people in November at a gala in New York City.
“He was engaging, he would know when to pause, he said funny things and people loved him,” said Golda’s mother, Joan, who helps with her son’s team. “He got a standing ovation. I was so proud.”
The Special Olympics helped Golda develop some job-related skills, too. He said he has become a hard worker and successfully interviewed for a job at Tim Hortons.
The books still go with him but get set aside when it’s time to hit the courts.
“It makes your heart just fill with joy,” Joan Golda said of watching her son play. “There’s an awe, there’s an excitement. I’m thankful to God for this opportunity, because at home he’s a different kid. There’s still sometimes some anger issues and frustration ... and then he gets here and he’s in his element.”
The lean Corsitto weighs only 141 pounds but calmly dead-lifted 330 pounds in preliminary competition Saturday and hoped to reach his personal best of 400 pounds later in the day.
The Long Island native said the energy and excitement gained from lifting more than twice his weight makes it all worthwhile.
“Just doing this gets me pumped up,” said Corsitto, 26, who has been lifting competitively for five years. “I’m just glad to be here with everybody.”
His father, Jim, is also his coach.
“Everybody lifts together. It’s a great thing for these guys. They push each other. If he came up here by himself, he probably wouldn’t do as well. You need everybody to get their best lifts, because they all cheer each other on.”
The competition also has been a self-esteem booster for Corsitto, who recently decided to take driving lessons.
“Now he tries all different types of stuff,” Jim Corsitto said, “because before, he didn’t have any confidence in himself.”
Gruendel, 27, of Long Island has been participating in the Special Olympics since she was about 10. In the past, she even qualified for the World Games in Idaho.
Gruendel runs the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
The Special Olympics has pushed her to be more active.
“I was a little bit heavy,” said Gruendel, who has lost almost 30 pounds since she began running regularly. “I’m working out at home now and losing weight. ... I don’t give up.”
Her mother enjoys rooting for the other participants, as well.
“Just seeing the smiles on the athletes’ faces – they’re so excited when they get their golds,” Brenda Gruendel said. “Even if they don’t, they’re just happy that they did their best.”