Summer 2003 is forever associated for me with the Special Olympics—it was a magical time and I treasure the memories. Right from the start, from the induction sessions at The Point, I was sucked into the buzz, the excitement and the wonder of it all. Being part of the huge crowd of volunteers at the show there and knowing that similar large groups had met, and would meet, gave me a sense of belonging and pride. I was hooked!
I remember when the letter came assigning me to Football in UCD Belfield, I got such a slagging at home, because I never could understand the off-side rule. Luckily, as it turned out, I had nothing to do with the actual matches being played and was put to work in the staging of the five-a-side football competition.
Collecting, and later modelling, my volunteer uniform was the next stage. My daughter had also volunteered, so we (nearly) looked like twins!! We had a trouser ‘ensemble’ and a skirt ‘ensemble’ each and the countdown was on to the start of the games. I had won two tickets for the opening ceremony which I gave to my daughter and son. I was glued to the television on the night of the opening and found the whole experience so emotional. The coverage was enhanced for me by the constant mobile phone calls from my children: ‘Mum, did you see that?’ ‘Mum, the sound here is unbelievable, the television couldn’t do this justice…’ I was happy to watch it all and to cheer from my armchair.
Then it was time to go to work. I donned the uniform and managed to squeeze quite an array of stuff into my bum-bag, before rambling down to Belfield. I don’t live too far away from UCD, but invariably somebody stopped to offer me a lift en route, once they spotted the uniform! One day while I was kitted out, I ran across the road to a neighbour’s house—and, would you believe it, I got two offers of a lift to Belfield while I was waiting to cross the road over and back!!
In Belfield my job was to go to the Registration Tent and collect a team, bring them to the dressing room, leave them to tog out, collect them on the far side and lead them onto the field of play. I met only wonderful teams and wonderful people. My first team was South Africa. Having deposited the athletes in the dressing room, I ran around to the exit and lined up with all the other volunteers, like anxious mothers waiting for their children to come out of school. My abiding memory of that first day was the chant I could hear coming through the dressing room before my team emerged. They sang and danced their way onto the pitch. What could a volunteer do but dance along? The opposing team from the USA took it all in their stride. The Cypriot team that I was with another day had whistles to accompany their arrival. Soon everybody knew when these teams were playing. All the athletes played their hearts out. Some memories I have of the playing are comments like ‘He’s not going to give you ball, you know, go get it!’, ‘Brian, No! We are playing the other way!’. There was the goal keeper who (when facing a very strong player) went down on her hunkers and closed her eyes as the striker took her shot (I would have too!), the cheers and the tears, the hugs and the smiles, and the huge crowds of people who would gather around to watch Ireland play, the school children who came along to cheer and, most importantly, to collect autographs. I took hundreds of photos and I am sure that my own picture has travelled the world, as I was always included in so many of the team photos.
Everybody was in good humour and the sun shone for us. I loved the lunchtime fun; especially memorable was the outdoor disco when athletes and volunteers had a chance to boogie! One day, when there was a bit of a lull in the dancing, the DJ played the Conga and out from double doors just behind him came a long line of all the match officials and referees in their black uniforms and white knee-socks—doing the Conga! They got such a cheer from everybody…la, la, la, la—and then, of course, we all joined in. That’s what it was all about for me, joining in. Like many other volunteers, I worked when my shift was over, I turned up on my days off, and I just had to see all my teams when it came to the medal ceremonies. I was addicted to the games and couldn’t stop talking about them. I remember going to the supermarket in Dundrum, in my uniform, and people stopping me to ask where I was based, usually followed by a question as to how Ireland was doing!!
At the closing ceremony I met up with my sister and we squatted together at a stand, knowing that we each had a volunteer daughter working in Croke Park that night. We were proud as any mothers could be. I had to leave a little early to travel down the country, but I can still hear the strains of Westlife singing on that mellow Sunday night as I made my way to the car park. I felt sad that it was all over, but so privileged to have been part of the experience.
About a month after the Games I got a knock on the door from a neighbour, asking me to put on my Special Olympics uniform and come outside. My daughter and I did just that, caps, bumbags, the lot. Then all of us on our stretch of road who had been involved in the Games met and had a photo taken, the green-uniform volunteers, the red-uniform volunteer and the yellow-uniform volunteer. We swapped memories, and collectively felt sorry for people who had not volunteered!! They didn’t know what they had missed.