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The Main Event: Going for Gold

By Selena Fragassi


It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the College of New Jersey was told they were an official host site for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games last June, Shari Blumenthal knew just how special it would be for the college, too.

“The USA Games are never held in the same state, and they occur only once every four years so it would be another [century or more] before we could be asked again,” estimates the assistant director of campus space management services. So, under Blumenthal’s leadership the college started planning sessions nearly two years ago to make it a successful and memorable experience, utilizing the cross campus efforts of the building services crew, facility maintenance, dining services, security, a dedicated student staff and the crew of the athletic department and the student center to bring it to fruition.

It’s something the college is well rehearsed at orchestrating by now. They’ve been the host site for the Special Olympics New Jersey’s qualifying rounds for the past 24 years—including 2014, which made for an interesting challenge.

“We had only five working days to turn the campus over from the New Jersey Games to the USA Games without sacrificing our standards,” recalls Blumenthal, noting that getting the residence halls ready was the biggest task. To prepare, she hired 120 student part-timers for the summer; normally it’s a staff of 15. “We identified our target dates and worked backwards to meet those deadlines. I’m familiar with the process of running our summer conferences so I guided the [Olympic subcommittees] on how we would best be able to serve the needs of the groups.”

That included accommodating any special needs of the visiting athletes. “All of our residence halls are handicap accessible with elevators and/or ramps, and we have specialty rooms equipped with wheelchair-guided bathrooms and strobe lights for the hearing impaired,” says Blumenthal. “We also could meet any dietary requests, for example if a gluten-free or pureed meal was needed.”

When all was said and done, the college welcomed 2,700 overnight guests as the temporary home for coaches and athletes from 27 states as well as 5,000 to 10,000 additional competitors, spectators and family members each day who were bussed in from other official sites including Prudential Center, Princeton and Mercer County Park. While College of New Jersey hosted the bocce ball, basketball and powerlifting tournaments, they were also the grounds of the Olympic Town (held in one of the massive parking lots) and the Special Olympics’ Healthy Athletes program, which transformed the Student Center with build outs and additional signage.

The college’s Kendall Hall was also a big benefit for hosting the powerlifting activities, which drew in the biggest crowds. “It’s our largest venue on campus that holds 800-plus people and has comfortable seating. We’ve had several years of practice in that specific location so the venue managers are familiar with coordination. …In general, we all work well together on our campus to make things happen,”

While the Games did a great service providing extra exposure for the college through a swath of media covering the event for a national audience, there was an even more important takeaway, according to Blumenthal. “It’s almost like Christmas to see the joy on the faces of the athletes after they complete their activity. It fills you with such emotion, and it makes us proud to be a part of it. At the end everyone was looking for a souvenir they could take home to remember it.”