It really is true – your life can change in an instant. 

More than a decade ago on a casual Sunday afternoon, I went to my local track for a workout and came home as a volunteer coach for the Manchester Super Duper All-Stars Special Olympics track team. Since that life-changing day, I've dedicated countless weekends to Super Duper practices and meets. Coaching these Special Olympic athletes, from kindergartners to adults older than my parents has been a remarkably rewarding experience.

Ironically, I began volunteering in the earliest stages of my own running career. I had joined a local youth running club only a few months prior, and quite honestly lacked enthusiasm for running. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could find pleasure or excitement in its monotony. However, my extraordinary coach at the time, Cathy Merra, quickly turned my initial lukewarm interest into a love for a sport that would blossom into a lifelong passion. She taught me that a good coach is not someone who produces a world-class athlete, but one who makes a difference in the lives of ordinary athletes—one who promotes strong minds, builds confidence, pushes athletes beyond limits, and instills a lifelong love for a sport. Coach Merra championed the importance of giving back to the community and sharing a passion for running. I realized that I wanted to share this newfound passion for running with these Special Olympic athletes. I wanted to make a difference in their lives.

Little did I know at the time that these athletes would make an even greater impact on my own life.

Me, Amanda, and my younger sister at the New Hampshire Special Olympics Regional Games in 2007.

Their camaraderie, enthusiasm and optimism were contagious. During each practice, they unknowingly taught me the most valuable life lessons. In the beginning, I was anxious working with these unusually affectionate and effusive athletes, overwhelmed by the love and passion exuded by so many of them. At one of my first practices, I met Amanda, who was pacing about in a far corner, clutching her water bottle, her gaze fixated over the track fence. Just a few years older than me, she was shy and not participating in the activities with the rest of the group. I approached her, making eye contact and beginning a friendly conversation. Only a few words were exchanged, but we shared the rest of the afternoon holding hands, smiling and slowly bonding. It was a simple connection between two young girls that lasted throughout the years. I went on to watch Amanda grow—watching her smiles and frowns, her victories and defeats, her triumphs and tribulations.

Special Olympics
The New Hampshire Special Olympics State Games in 2005.

Amanda and her fellow athletes lovingly pushed me outside my comfort zone and redefined me. I discovered how simple humanity changes a relationship. I listened to these athletes’ stories, learned about their family histories, their physical challenges, and developed deep relationships just through conversation. Sometimes I was just a friend who shared a laugh; other times they needed a push of encouragement. As I became more involved with the team, I no longer saw my Super Dupers as just athletes; they soon became my special friends.

Special Olympics
My older sister and I with one of the Super Duper All-Stars' most talented distance runners, Ben.

Some practices brought greater challenges. I was often faced with emotional and behavioral outbursts, but each new occurrence only strengthened my abilities as a leader, bettering my capability to coach, teach,and most importantly, lead. The Special Olympic athletes I worked were a crucial inspiration in my life, teaching me the importance of sharing my valuable Special Olympics experiences and the necessity of mobilizing others to contribute to this worthwhile organization, something that has become a critical aspect of my life. I used my position as a coach to advocate to my peers that the greatest accomplishments in life aren’t about gains, but about the impacts made on other people.

As the years passed, I found myself dedicating more and more time to the Special Olympics Track Team. Every February in my home state of New Hampshire, there is a “Penguin Plunge” held at the beach, where thousands of people raise money for Special Olympics and plunge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean. After listening to the stories of many volunteers, I braved up to take the plunge, a spur-of-the-moment decision made only a week before the event. In six days, I managed to raise more than $1,200 by simply telling my friends and family about the cause. It made me realize how much I wanted to increase awareness and support for Special Olympics so I could watch others like Amanda have the opportunity to pursue their own dreams.

Penguin Plunge
The Penguin Plunge in the 35-degree Atlantic Ocean in February 2012. (I'm in the bikini on the far left)

The impact Amanda and many other Special Olympic athletes have made on me extends beyond the craft coaching and volunteering... to the craft of humanity. This message is a resonating force in my life, and has opened my eyes to the importance of aiding others. Special Olympics has taught me the true meaning of volunteering and service, and the athletes I worked with throughout my 10-year involvement with the team have inspired me to continue to make a difference in the community by pursuing activities I am truly passionate about.

My Special Olympic athletes and their families may believe I helped them athletes achieve their goals. But truthfully, their success rewarded me. It has made me more loving, patient and empathetic.

Though I have had to put my volunteer efforts for the track team on hold as a college student, I was able to be a part of promoting the #ReachUp campaign as a summer intern at The Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola has partnered with Special Olympics since 1968, championing the organization’s principles of inclusion and fostering the growth of these incredible athletes. As I watch the Special Olympics World Games from afar, I remain thankful for the many years and memories of working with these inspirational athletes, and proud of all that they do. Because each and every one of them really is Super Duper.