From Summer Games to Fall Festival
Two Villanova Students Return from Special Olympics World Summer Games with Fresh Ideas for 35th Annual Festival
The gravity of the moment was not lost on Moira Horan ’24 CLAS and Kate Delaney ’24 VSB.
Squeezed into the packed Olympiastadion in Berlin, the two Villanova University students watched as German tennis player Sophie Rensmann lit the torch to signify the beginning of the 16th Special Olympics World Summer Games. It was the first time the Olympic torch shone in the stadium since 1936 – the year Jesse Owens took home four gold medals while exuding tremendous bravery in the face of overwhelming adversity.
For Horan, who serves as Villanova’s 2023 Special Olympics Fall Festival director, and Delaney, the director of competition, it was a fitting start to an event that highlights diversity, inclusion and the incredible bravery of the world’s Special Olympics athletes.
The two of them were not there for work or credit. They were not required to be in Berlin in late June for any reason. They went on their own.
“Kate and I wanted to take the opportunity to go experience the World Games and to learn,” Horan said. “We wanted to bring back ideas we saw and implement them into our own Fall Fest competition here at Villanova.”
So, to Germany they went, meticulously planning their time so they could soak in as much as possible. For most of the day, they attended as many competitions as they were able, paying close attention to logistics, presentation and understanding the games from a fan perspective. That perspective is an incredibly important component of events like this, and one they do not usually get to experience at Villanova. During the athletic competitions, they were able to see first-hand commodities like the accessibility features of the venues, such as quiet rooms for noise sensitivity, sensory backpacks, service animals, wheelchair loans and speech-to-text interpreting.
Between competitions, they chatted with as many individuals they could. They met with representatives from Special Olympics Pennsylvania, such as Senior Advisor of Development and Marketing Mike Bovino, to discuss operations, and Unified Champion Schools Director Lauren Saulter about external optics such as venue presentation. They picked up on new processes and ideas for Fall Festival – which is run jointly with Special Olympics Pennsylvania – with each conversation.
“One thing we talked [with Lauren] about was how all the little details matter – the things you don’t think about on a day-to-day basis as you’re walking around the venues, but that make such a big difference in the look and the feel,” Delaney said. “[For example], there is no visible tape showing, no handwritten signs… It’s impressive how much goes into the backend logistics.”
Using their existing relationships as a springboard, they also were able to speak with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, and Editra Allen, senior director of games operations and global events, sport and competition at Special Olympics International, who keyed them in on the communication and collaboration it takes to successfully host such a large-scale competition.
“[Learning] how to make communication clear really stuck out to us,” Horan said. “With all the different individuals involved in an event like this, you want to keep in mind, of course, the athlete experience, but also the family experience, the volunteer experience and the fan experience.
“While keeping the big picture in mind, you have to pay attention to how each venue or each aspect of the competition and event will impact each person,” Delaney added.
Their interactions with the Special Olympics representatives also included discussions and information sessions on various programs, such as the Young Athletes program for children with intellectual disabilities, with which they are involved locally, and Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers. Healthy Athletes, which offers health services to participants from around the world, was another initiative that piqued their interest.
“For some athletes, that is not something they get to experience all the time,” Delaney said. “Some have never had [routine medical] check-ups in their life. We found that to be very moving.”
But the highlight of the trip for both was the athlete interaction. Both Horan and Delaney were concerned they would not get the chance to meet any of the athletes, but through their contacts at the World Games made possible by Special Olympics Pennsylvania, the opportunities were plentiful. By day two, had met the entire women’s and men’s U.S. tennis teams.
Among them, Horan and Delaney spent quite a bit of time with Pennsylvania’s Loretta Claiborne, who has been competing in the Special Olympics for more than 50 years, is chief inspiration officer and vice chair of Special Olympics International’s Board of Directors and holds an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Villanova. In fact, Claiborne herself has attended Villanova’s Fall Festival several times.
“As soon as we met her and she heard we came from Villanova, we saw the excitement on her face,” Delaney said. “Learning about her experience at Villanova was impactful for me and hearing how well she spoke about our University community and how inclusive we are is something I keep reflecting on.”
“She’s an absolute legend,” Horan said. “Being able to talk with [Loretta] was such an incredible moment.”
They also spent time with the family and coach of Izaak Hobday, the other Pennsylvania athlete representing Team USA. While Hobday was busy earning a gold and silver medal in the 1,500 and 5,000-meter runs, respectively, Horan and Delaney gained valuable insight on the athlete experience, with a close-to-home tie in.
“We see a lot of athletes and go to practices that are held in Montgomery and Delaware counties, but we don’t often get to hear perspectives of people in other counties,” Delaney said. “Being able to have that coach perspective and athlete interaction is something we were super grateful for… We don’t hear that every day.”
It began with an emotional opening ceremony and ended with a sense of invigoration, empowerment and pride for both Villanovans.
“The whole event showed how much their mission of inclusion and togetherness – virtues we all strive to embody at Villanova – was just as important as the medals won,” Horan said. “While the athletes were very successful, the progress they made toward a more inclusive world was very meaningful to us.
“I am really excited to implement what we learned,” Delaney added. “We are so grateful to be part of the [Special Olympics] community.”
Moira Horan ’24 CLAS
Kate Delaney ’24 VSB