RADNOR – More than 1,000 Special Olympic athletes converged on the Villanova University campus this weekend for the 31st annual Fall Festival, where they have been competing in about a half dozen sporting events.

The athletes took part in bocce, long-distance running/walking, powerlifting, roller skating, soccer and volleyball at venues at Villanova and other nearby locations.

The annual Fall Festival event is considered the largest student-run Special Olympics event in the world.

Gabrielle Grieco, a Villanova student and the festival director this year, said along with the 1,200 athletes that came to Villanova to compete, many other volunteers and coaches also attend. Many of those volunteers are students.

“What’s really cool is that the students are also really involved,” Grieco said.

According to Grieco, there is a planning committee with about 100 Villanova students broken down into different areas, such as the group of five that planned the soccer events.

So how long does it take to plan such an event?

Grieco said the work goes on for about nine months to get ready for the event each year.

One of the reasons Grieco came to Villanova was because of the annual Special Olympics event on campus, she said.

She got involved in the Special Olympics because of a family friend from home that has Down syndrome. He is a close friend to her younger brother in Rhode Island.

“I think the opportunity to play sports should not be limited based on ability and everyone should have that opportunity because it’s obviously so much fun,” Grieco said.

One of those athletes taking part in the competition was Ashley Ohmott of Montgomery County.

Ohmott said she has been playing volleyball at the Special Olympics for the past several years.

Having competed for so many years, Ohmott said she doesn’t get nervous with all the competition. But like many of the athletes, she enjoys coming out each year.

“I love coming out here. I look forward to it every year,” she said.

The theme for this year’s events was “how will you choose to soar.” A large hot air balloon was on the center of campus to illustrate that theme.

With this being the 31st year Villanova has hosted the Fall Festival with the Special Olympics, there are a lot of events leading up to the games.

Things started off with kick-off events that took place Friday throughout the day and evening.

Those events began with a 26-mile non-competitive torch run from the stadium area in South Philadelphia to the Villanova campus.

The opening ceremonies then took place Friday evening, featured Jay Wright, head coach of the Villanova men’s basketball team. There was also a hoops contest pitting Villanova players vs. Special Olympics athletes.

Gina Reid, senior field director for Special Olympics Pennsylvania, said the university has done a lot to help inspire the competitors.

“Their whole theme is to inspire the athletes to do their best,” Reid said. “And the incredible thing here at Villanova is just how well-supported this is by the campus.”

Beyond the university and the student involvement, all the work and the effort is for the benefit of the athletes.

“For the athletes, this is the highlight of the year,” Reid said. “They come on campus here at Villanova, and they know they will be celebrated and respected and that their accomplishments mean so much to them and for their parents to have the opportunity to watch them in this kind of a platform."

As with any major sporting competition of this type, the long-distance race is among the more popular events.

Thomas Harley of Levittown, Bucks County, pulled way and won the 5,000-meter race.

Harley said he enjoys coming to Villanova each year.

“Villanova is a really great college, and they have really great varsity sports here, and I’m really glad to be here,” Harley said shortly after winning his race.

For Harley, the games are more than just a chance to compete against others. It’s also about the friendships he has formed.

“They all did really good here,” Harley said of the other athletes. “I really appreciate everyone competing, and I have friends from other teams and not just my team, so it just feels good to be here.”

Additional events continue on campus Sunday.

comments powered by Disqus