Boo Bear and I spent last weekend at the State track and field event for Special Olympics. He did very well, bringing home a fourth place in the 100 meter walk, a second place in the 25 meter walk and a gold in the 400 meter walk. It was at the beginning of the 400 meter walk that I learned the marvelous phrase, “Semper Gumby”. The athletes and their coaches were all in the staging area getting ready for their race. Next to us sat a young man, A, and his dad. A is like Boo Bear and pre verbal, though he did bark when excited. We lined up to go out on the track. Suddenly, A wrestled free of his dad, darted around me and ran back to a table. The cloth on the table was askew and A began straightening it. Once it was properly squared he rejoined the rest of the athletes. His father just shrugged and said that this was A’s thing. The race official chuckled, looked at me and said “Semper Gumby.” “Always Gumby?” I asked. “Yes”, he said. “Always flexible.” “Yes”, I said, “That is the perfect phrase, I will remember this. Thank you!”
The officials lined up the athletes. A was in lane 7 and Boo Bear and I were in lane 8. The whistle went off and sent up on our way. Coming around the bend in the track and by the bleachers I noticed a big university banner. A noticed it too, and the fact that it was askew! Suddenly, he darted out of his lane and into ours and began frantically fixing the banner. The officials all started yelling at him to get back in his lane but he was not to be deterred. Once the banner was fixed to his specifications, he decided to rejoin the race, but now he was confused as to what lane he should be in. He wandered over into lane 2. Officials are not allowed to touch an athlete without disqualifying him, so they resorted to yelling directions at him and waving flags. This only disoriented A further. I was a yard or so behind him, watching this unfold. I lowered my voice under the din and said, “A this is Harriet. I am in lane 8. Go to lane 7.” Amazingly, he heard me, turned around, looked me in the eye and went back to his correct lane! He, Boo Bear and I continued to push forward. At 100 yards to go I saw A’s dad at the finish lane. “A”, I said. “There is daddy. Go to dad.” We lengthened our stride and the three of us crossed the finish line together.
I love Special Olympics for many reasons. It is a venue just for athletes to be athletes. No one is pandering to them or telling them how inspirational they are. Athletes run and swim, do gymnastics and play basketball just for their love of the sport. As I coach I feel honored to be a part of this experience. And, in the back of my mind I always keep that phrase, “Semper Gumby.”