GLENS FALLS – Jacob Babcock has his eyes on gold.
The 25-year-old native of Rochester started running at the start of the pandemic last year and has been training diligently in cross-country skiing ever since.
He hopes his efforts will pay off this weekend during the Special Olympics New York Fall Games, which officially begin in City Park on Friday.
“This is my very first cross-country get-together so I’m very excited,” he said.
Babcock is one of 13 members of the Special Olympics Athlete Leadership Council, a group of Special Olympics athletes responsible for organizing national games and promoting Special Olympics in their communities.
Members of the group gathered at the Park Theater on Thursday to discuss the upcoming Games, the first nationwide event Special Olympics has hosted since 2019 due to the pandemic.
Around 500 athletes and 150 coaches are expected in the city to compete in seven sports: bocce, cycling, golf, horse riding, soccer, softball and cross-country.
Events take place at venues across the region, including Cole’s Woods, SUNY Adirondack, and the Adirondack Sports Complex.
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The games are the culmination of a year-long competition and give athletes the opportunity to show their skills against competitors from across the state.
But due to budget issues, the fall event has been canceled over the past six years, meaning hundreds of athletes missed an opportunity to compete at the national level, said Stacey Hengsterman, president and CEO of Special Olympics New York.
“Your competition would end at the regional level if all the other sports we offer competed nationally,” she said. âWe’re back in action. The autumn games are back too, so … it means the world to us. “
This year’s event required careful planning – which was completed by a series of bi-weekly Zoom meetings – to ensure athletes could compete safely amid a swelling pandemic.
All athletes are required to wear a mask except when competing or eating, and wellness screenings are conducted to ensure that no one is symptomatic before the competition.
Coaches and volunteers were required to be fully vaccinated, and unvaccinated athletes were required to test negative for the virus prior to competition. The opening and closing ceremonies have been moved outside to reduce the risk of infection.
It’s not the first time Glens Falls has hosted the Fall Games, and it certainly won’t be the last, Hengsterman said.
The city hosted the event in 2015 with a lot of fanfare and community support. The event is slated to return every fall through 2023.
âThis is the first of three years in Glens Falls so we’re postponing it. Our autumn, winter and summer games are held in different parishes and we are staying for three years, âshe said. “So, yes, we’ll be back.”
But for the athletes who compete, Special Olympics is about more than winning medals and practicing their favorite sports.
The organization provides an opportunity to make friends for life and travel the world while competing.
Most importantly, it is a chance to be treated equally.
For Maddie Csont, 28, a Rochester native and a member of the Athlete Leadership Council, attending the Special Olympics over the past decade has offered opportunities she could never have imagined.
Csont won’t compete this weekend, but will travel to the World Games in Orlando next year, where she will compete in gymnastics.
âIt changed my life in ways I didn’t even know could. I was laughed at in high school. I didn’t have a lot of high school friends to hang out with. I … didn’t do any extracurricular activities because I had an intellectual disability and every time I talked to people, they laughed at me, âshe paused, tears running down her face.
“Now nobody laughs anymore,” said a comforting stallion man to thunderous applause.
The opening ceremony of the autumn games will take place on Friday at 7 p.m. in the city park.
Chad Arnold is a reporter for The Post-Star covering the city of Glens Falls and the city and village of Lake George and the Washington County government. Follow him on Twitter @ChadGArnold.