May 22, 2014
07:47 AM
The Connecticut Story

Connecticut Athletes Prepare for 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey

Connecticut Athletes Prepare for 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey

Sharon Rivera’s dreams of Olympic Gold were slipping away.

It was 2010 at the Special Olympics USA Summer Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Connecticut basketball team, which Rivera was playing on, was in trouble. With less than a minute left in the gold medal game, Connecticut was down by two points and seemed on the brink of defeat. Rivera wasn’t about to let that happen.

“With 34 seconds left I get the ball and I tied the ballgame,” recalls the 34-year-old Special Olympics athlete from Meriden. The team went on to win and playing in the epic game is something Rivera will never forget.

“That was the most memorable thing,” she says with fondness.

Rivera (right) will get another shot at Olympic glory this summer when she competes with Connecticut’s volleyball team at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, which will be held in and around Princeton, New Jersey, June 14-21. During the games, 76 athletes and unified partners (an athlete without intellectual disabilities who trains and competes with their peers with disabilities to encourage inclusion), 22 coaches and two delegates will represent Connecticut as they square off against athletes from across the country.

High school senior Matt Capobianco competes with Connecticut’s soccer team as a unified partner. When the 17-year-old tells people he’s on the soccer team, they often tell him how nice he’s being. But Matt doesn’t see it that way.

“I really enjoy getting to know the athletes,” says Capobianco, who attends Jonathan Law High School in Milford. “Most people don’t understand it’s not really volunteer work, it’s more socializing. As a group we have practice every week and [often] after practice we go to someone’s house and have hamburgers and hot dogs, and we just socialize for a little while. It’s really, really nice.”

Capobianco (left) says he and his teammates are excited for the chance to compete against players from around the country. “The athletes and the partners are really excited to be going to New Jersey this summer. It will be a fun week,” he says.

Capobianco has been involved with Special Olympics for as long as he can remember. His uncle, David Dennin, has intellectual disabilities and competes with the Special Olympic team as a weightlifter. Matt’s father, Chris Capobianco, is the head coach of Connecticut’s weightlifting team. The elder Capobianco says working with Special Olympics is a great experience.

“I enjoy coaching and seeing the athletes improve during practice, and then seeing them in the competition,” he says. “When they succeed on making a lift, or have a personal best, their reaction is really great to see and it’s really heartwarming.”

Special Olympics started in the 1950s and early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of John F. Kennedy) saw how unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated and noticed that many children with intellectual disabilities didn’t even have a place to play. Her efforts resulted in the first International Special Olympics Summer Games, held in July 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago. In the decades since, the games have continued to grow, and as of 2013, there were more than 4.2 million athletes and 70,000 competitions around the world.

Matt Capobianco says that being involved with Special Olympics competitions is a great opportunity for anyone. “You make new friends and you get to hear people’s stories and you just have a good time,” he says.

For her part, Rivera is looking forward to another shot at Olympic gold. She says, “I’m looking forward to going to New Jersey and just meeting other athletes and coaches from other states and you know, just making new friends.”                                      

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Connecticut Athletes Prepare for 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey

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