WESTCHESTER, N.Y. -- Jhon Valencia and John Sanfratello were among the first athletes to arrive at Hommocks Middle School for practice Tuesday as members of the Hudson Valley Special Olympics team continued preparations for the 2012 New York State Summer Games, which will be June 15-17 in Buffalo.
"I just got back from competing in Rhode Island," said Valencia, a 27-year-old from Mamaroneck who competes in volleyball and track and field. "I love the traveling to competitions. I meet so many new friends. Our volleyball team is pretty good and I think I can be pretty good at the pentathlon. That's includes five different events for track and field."
Hudson Valley is one of several regional offices for Special Olympics New York, which was introduced to Westchester-Putnam counties in 1972. According to Special Olympics New York Program Director Ellen Pikula, the local team will send 143 athletes to represent the counties. The local organizations support nearly 3,500 athletes year-round with 1,500 local volunteers
"Many of our athletes have a lot of experience competing," Pikula said. "They have varying levels of skills, but they all work very hard and take the games very seriously. They compete hard but appreciate the other athletes. The Buffalo games are a big deal for them."
The Hudson Valley team includes athletes participating in swimming, basketball, volleyball and track and field, such as Sanfratello, a Pleasantville volleyball player who is a front-line star on a strong team that spent nearly an hour working on returns and passing drills Tuesday under the watchful eye on Sound Shore Stars Training Program Director and coach Suzanne Elson.
"We have some outstanding athletes like Jhon (Valencia) who has been with us for about 14 years since he was a teenager," said Elson, who is a veteran of three decades of working with the Westchester-based Special Olympics programs. "Our goal is to have the athletes enjoy the games and compete as athletes with the focus on good sportsmanship. The athletes work very hard on their skills and take a lot of pride in what they do."
Elson and her coaching staff coordinated practice for the track athletes and volleyball team in the Hommocks Middle School gymnasium while the swim team went through its paces in the school's pool. The practice session began with laps around the gym and stretching exercises followed by volleyball team skills practice and individual workouts for track and field.
"We are working on all the defense and offense skills," Sanfratello said. "John (Valencia) is a very good server and hitter and I try to make plays at the net. We will win most of our matches, but I enjoy it win or lose."
The games will include more than 1,500 athletes, coaches and family members and will feature competitions in track and field, aquatics, basketball, bowling, powerlifting, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball.
According to Special Olympics New York, Inc. Regional Director Josh Corday, Hudson Valley Special Olympics is supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, Knights of Columbus and Civil Service Employees Association, IBM, Cablevision and CH Energy.
"We have so many great coaches, volunteers and supporters," Corday said. "We are in need of more corporate support and always looking for volunteers."
For information about the New York State Westchester-based Special Olympics programs, log on at www.specialolympicsny.org or call the regional offices at 845-765-2497.
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