Toby Meisel spends most of his time in a wheelchair. But after he won the javelin throw in his division in the Special Olympics New York Summer Games on June 15 on a sunny, breezy day at Prentiss Field on the Vassar College campus, the 17-year-old Highland High School student unbuckled himself. And with a little help from his coach, he climbed onto the platform to accept his gold medal.
“I feel honored,” Toby said moments later. “The main thing was that I was out there trying my best. I was in beast mode.”
Throughout the day, more than 1,500 athletes tried just as hard as Toby had. Many won medals, but those who didn’t were just as proud as Toby about trying their best as they congratulated each other and shared all the fun they were having with their friends, families, and the over 1,200 volunteers who made the Games a success.
Taking part in the Special Olympics was a first for Vassar. The College housed the athletes, provided the venues for bocce, track and field, swimming, and basketball, and hosted the opening and closing ceremonies.
As she mingled with the athletes and coaches at Prentiss Field, President Elizabeth Bradley said the event was one of the most rewarding experiences The College had ever been a part of. “Everybody wants to win,” Bradley added, “but there’s something different about the competitiveness here. Everyone is so supportive of each other.”
That supportive spirit reached far beyond the athletes and coaches. Bringing the Games to the area was indeed a team effort. Dutchess Community College acted as a co-host of the Games, providing the venues for the volleyball and powerlifting events. Two local businesses, Fishkill Bowl and Mr. Todd’s Gymnastics, hosted bowling and gymnastics respectively, and a partnership of dozens of other local businesses and local government officials and staff provided the funding and logistics that made the Games a success.
“We chose Dutchess County and Vassar to host these games, but really, they chose us,” said Stacey Hengsterman, President and CEO of Special Olympics New York. “I heard the buzz about Dutchess County when I came on board [as president and CEO] about a year ago, and I am blown away by what everyone here has done for us—including the great weather they managed to provide.”
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro said he and other government and business leaders were determined to host the Summer Games as soon as they finished hosting the Winter Games in 2017.
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“Dutchess County and Vassar and everyone else involved have come together, and we all poured our heart and soul into this,” Molinaro said. “The athletes who are here have earned their place in the state Games by succeeding in other competitions, and many have overcome significant challenges to do so. We wanted to ensure that we rewarded them for their efforts by providing the best Games ever.”
One of the oldest and most experienced athletes at the Games, 53-year-old Kevin Brown, of Albany, said he had won “hundreds” of medals competing with his volleyball team since he was eight years old. But he added that the medals are not the ultimate goal for him and his fellow competitors.
“I really don’t care if I win a medal or not,” Brown said on the eve of the competition. “What matters is that we’re out there competing and showing everyone we’re just as good as anyone else at our sports.”
The athletes’ family members agreed. Linda Mitchell, of Chittenango, said she’d been cheering for her daughter, Lindsay Mitchell, for the past 12 years as she competed in swimming, volleyball, bowling, cycling, skiing, and equestrian events. “It’s nail-biting sometimes,” Mitchell said. “You just want everyone to do well, and it can be overwhelming.”
Lindsay Mitchell said that when she trains, she is thinking about more than winning medals. “I want to be a role model, so that whether I win or lose, my mom is proud of me.”
As she watched her daughter, Ana, compete for the first time in swimming events in Vassar’s Kresge Pool, Marcela Gonzalez-Decosio, of New York City, said she was gratified by the support everyone had shown her before and during the competition. Asked if she was nervous about watching Ana swim, Gonzalez-Decosio smiled and shook her head. “No, not at all,” she said. “I’m just so happy she’s happy.”
Toby Meisel’s mother, AnnMarie Meisel, said she experienced happiness, and a blend of other emotions, when she watched her son compete. “I get a lump in my throat every time,” Meisel said. “So many of us parents have had to endure devastating news, not knowing our childrens’ future, and now, to see them out there competing is inspiring.
“These Games exemplify endurance,” she added. “There’s a lesson here for all of us. They put our lives in perspective.”