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The beginning of the end
6/19/2014

It's funny, and pretty bittersweet, when you can feel the games winding down. Today was our last day at the tennis venue, but we made it memorable with both of our athletes winning bronze in singles. Coach Peggy even gave up the bench so our Unified Partners could coach. This meant I coached Bobby during his match, which basically amounted to me saying, "You know how you just dominated your opponent 4-0 to win the first set? Yeah, keep doing that."  He won the second set, and I take full credit for it. 

The final awards at tennis led to some tough goodbyes to our great volunteers and to new tennis-loving friends from other states. These athletes make as much of an impact as some of our own MO Magic folks, and we hope to see them all another time. 

Following tennis, we visited the Healthy Athletes program. I'd like to take this opportunity to brag on that. Healthy Athletes is sometimes an afterthought at competitions, but it may very well be the most important thing S.O. does.  If it's been a while since you've gone, give it another shot. Another important thing about HA is that it helped us stay at The College of New Jersey long enough to have dinner there, which is quite a treat compared to home sweet Rider U.

Our final stop of the evening was Princeton, where we witnessed some gold medal performances by the track and swim teams. We're all starting to look forward to Closing Ceremonies, yet there's little talk of the trip home that follows. We're all hoping to hang onto USA Games for as long as possible.  

We make a great team
6/18/2014

"Boy, that sure was a great match out there today. We make a great team."

That's how my partner summed up the day, as only he can in such an understated way. He is right - it was a great match! We faced off with Maryland and claimed a 4-0, 4-2 win for gold! It was our best game as a team, and arguably my best match also. 

The awards stand is when it all got very real. A year of training.  The love and support of my wife and everyone else who thought to donate money or simply wish us well along the way. Sacrificing a Father's Day to travel to the games. It might not have shown on the outside, but emotionally it was moving and almost overwhelming to think of how far we'd come to reach that golden moment.

And yet he's thanking me and touting us as a great team. 

Not so fast, my friend. Truth be told he could have won that match without a partner. Again, it was truly an honor to be his teammate and now his friend as well. 

More to be shared tomorrow!

The Match
6/17/2014

If you're a sports fan there's a game or performance you always remember, like Michael Jordan's Flu Game or Tiger Woods winning a major with an injured leg.  Special Olympics is like that as well. There's always an athlete or a moment that stands out and reminds you why it's so inspiring. Today was that day for me. 

Bobby, who has breezed through right matches so far, faced a New Jersey athlete in his semifinal singles match. Right away, Bobby won three quick games and I assumed he'd coast again. But then his opponent, already wilting in the heat, fought back. Bobby won the first set but fell behind in the second and had to force a tiebreak, which he then lost 8-6. But the numbers are pretty meaningless. Unfortunately only a few of us were there to witness this - both players resembled boxers slugging it out. Every two games, they would sit on their benches as though they were in corners of a ring. Any coach or parent within arm's reach would offer ice or a towel to help fan them. When the official said it was time to play again, the players jumped up on wobbly legs instinctively to give it their all. 

The third set tiebreak was hard fought. Both players were overheated and worn out, but would pound tennis balls as hard as they could like uppercuts toward their opponent. With two points to go, the NJ athlete spoke out, "I can't! I can't!" But his body kept moving, and eventually he beat Bobby in that 3rd set. We all felt horrible that there had to be a defined winner and loser in the match. After it was over, both players hugged and everyone around shook hands and offered praise to each athlete. Bobby was pulled off the court by a radio reporter wanting to interview this great champion whi traveled so far to compete so bravely. 

I can hardly describe how I felt after seeing this. Disappointed for my friend, but more proud of him than ever. (And now, with Unified being Bobby's last chance at gold, determined to help him win one!) Most of all, I'm simply in awe of these athletes, their spirit and sportsmanship. I've often said S.O. is the purest display of sport, and I stand by that. But it also seems to be the purest and bravest attempt at life. Whatever it is, I know I'll always remember this day and will always be thankful for my partner and how he inspired me today. 

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Did more happen today than just this match? Yes. Brittany put up a good fight of her own in a singles match. We were all blown away by the dinner cruise that included views of the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. It also included amazing food that was nothing like the now infamous Tennis Turkey Sandwich we eat every afternoon. But our whole team bonded over Bobby's match, and we're excited to come out tomorrow and try to match that effort ourselves. 

May the odds be ever in our favor
6/17/2014

On Sunday, when it became clear that our meal schedule was behind, my lovely and witty wife joked that these USA Games had become The Hunger Games. That held true on Monday in two ways. First, another meal delay had us concerned...but not enough to prevent us from laughing about it and offering up lame jokes about Katniss Everdeen (okay, that was just me).

Second and much more importantly, MO Magic tennis came out hungry for some wins! My partner, Bobby, continued to amaze and ran his record at these games to 7-0 with three singles victories. Ashley and Brittany won their semifinal match and will play for gold on Wednesday. Brittany also played two hard-fought matches in singles, coming up just short but fighting hard through some medical challenges. 

The evening found Bobby and I cast into the Cornucopia - alright, it was a stadium court - for our semifinal unified match. Bobby, as usual, demonstrated his typical calmness and focus. I wish I could say the same for his partner. My hands were almost as shaky as my tennis game, and felt guilty afterward for feeling like I could have cost him a medal. Luckily Bobby overcame this and led us to a 4-2, 4-1 victory setting up a matchup for gold with Maryland on Wednesday morning. After our match, Bobby was invited to play in a tennis showcase alongside Eddie Barbanell of "The Ringer."

Lessons learned: Again, Bobby is teaching me so much about handling pressure and how to be brave in the attempt. I'm so proud to work with him, and I'm already dreading the end of the week when we have to go back to opposite sides of the state. 

Quote of the day: "It was a GREAT day!" - Bobby Williams

(If you know Bobby and how much emotion he usually shows...well, this speaks volumes.)

The granddaddy of all Father's Days
6/15/2014

The first official day of the games was a marathon day! It started early with a team breakfast followed by a bus ride to our tennis venue. Team MO's ladies had a very good day of competition - Ashley (a Unified Partner and clearly misguided Jayhawk fan) and Brittany (aka Trouble...a name she takes with pride) will be very competitive in their division!  As for my partner Bobby and I, it was a great day. Four wins in prelims have us feeling pretty good about where we stand so far. 

The second half of our day was all about Opening Ceremonies. We made our argyle shorts look GOOD, enjoyed our great fans greeting us in Newark, and saw a ceremony with everything you could want. Celebs, good music (the rocked out anthem complete with pyrotechnics was especially nice), and plenty of great messages of acceptance and hope. The tone has been set for a great week in Jersey!  

Oh, and let's also pause to mention how incredible the Torch Run officers were today. In the words of a bus driver, "Nobody ever shuts down the Jersey turnpike. I'm trembling." The people of NJ may have been inconvenienced for a while, but the lengths the Torch Run family goes to support our athletes...it's indescribably cool. 

Lessons learned today:

- Never underestimate the power of a 5 minute nap. Or an hour nap while waiting for your bus to leave the parking lot. Okay, just napping period. It's awesome, and I look forward to being a highly skilled napper by week's end.

- Fear is such a good motivator. My worst fear this week is failing my partner and causing his medal or ribbon to be less than he hopes for and deserves. Talk about pressure! Luckily...A) Special Olympics is more about being brave in the attempt, which helps some of the fear to vanish. Also, B) My partner is good. Good enough to save my rear on a few occasions today. Here's hoping I (somewhat) pull my weight the rest of the way.

- If you happen to miss lunch for some reason, it will amaze you just how satisfying a Lunchable at dinner time can be. 

- Tennessee may be the Volunteer State, but the volunteers in NJ are becoming the most pleasant part of the experience (aside from our athletes and their never-ending inspiration, of course). Side Note: Apparently there's such a thing as the International WeLoveU Foundation. They volunteered at tennis AND Opening today and were phenomenal. If anyone has a moment, feel free to visit them online and thank them for the love they're showing here.

One final note: Happy Father's Day to any dad reading this! It was great getting to call my dad today, and the best present was getting to FaceTime with my kids as well. I won't lie...it makes me feel super guilty missing out on any time in person. But I look forward to sharing these memories with them, and I hope they grow to appreciate our athletes as much as we do. 

New Jersey: The happiest place on Earth
6/14/2014

We're coming to you tonight from the friendly confines of Rider University, our home for the next week. And when I say friendly, I mean it! Our athletes were greeted by incredible volunteers today at the airport and at Rider, along with a band, cheerleaders and even a video from New Jersey SO athletes. Who knew the home of Tony Soprano and bridge shutdowns would be such a kind, welcoming place? 

Team Missouri's delegation of 125+ began the morning early. As in 4:00 Central, with a call that our bus was ready to go...not at 4:30 as scheduled, but NOW.  You know how people in Missouri like to say that if you don't like the weather, just wait 24 hours because it'll change?  Such is the life at USA Games: the only constant is change. The great prophet, Mark Musso, told us to expect the unexpected at our send off on Friday and Day 1 delivered on his words.  Changes in schedules, planes, time zones, altitudes and even a brief delay in Atlanta. It's all in a day's work for Team MO. 

We arrived in Philly to a hero's welcome and the smell of cheesesteak. (Note to self: Gotta get one of those on the way out of town next week.) Team MO then took a bus the rest of the way, and you could feel the excitement build with every mile. My friend Jason from the athletics team, who is pretty nonverbal, didn't need any words to explain his feelings. His hand gestures and eyes told the whole story. There is nothing like this experience for our athletes, and it's an honor to accompany them throughout.

After being greeted by the great people of the Garden State, our team took a brief moment to rest and soak in the moment: WE ARE HERE! Seeing athletes from other states at dinner and trading pins with them just made it all the more real. We all simply can't wait for Opening Ceremonies tomorrow to officially kick off the games!

This just in: In the time this blog has been written, the schedule for tomorrow has changed. Our tennis team will be up at 5:15 for breakfast followed by a 6:15 bus to play in the divisioning rounds. Then back here to change and prepare for Opening. Again, change is everywhere. Thankfully we are all just too excited to care!  

MO MAGIC IS ON ITS WAY!
6/13/2014

It's the eve of our departure, and Team Missouri is safe and sound at the team hotel! The team reunited today at Washington University in St. Louis, and enjoyed an excellent send off this evening featuring a visit from comedian Bill Chott and encouraging words from SOMO's own Gary Brimer & Mark Musso.

All of the athletes heard fun stories from their coaches, and saw videos and slideshows about the journey through training camp and leading up to this moment. It seems impossible to think of a team more excited and ready to compete than we are!

If the sendoff ceremony wasnt enough to get our team fired up, what came next surely did! We exited Washington University to a tunnel of family and fans, and our bus to the team hotel received a police escort the entire way! Our athletes have earned the rock star treatment they are getting, and you can tell everyone is enjoying the ride already. 

Tomorrow will be a long day - up at 4am to begin the trek to the 2014 USA Games. But our team is ready. I just hope the rest of the country is bracing themselves for a heavy dose of MO MAGIC over the next week!

SHOW ME! SHOW ME! SHOW ME! 

MO! MO! MO!

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"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."  

 

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