Special Olympics athletes get star treatment in Encinitas

Special Olympics athletes get star treatment in Encinitas
Xolani Ngcamphalala, the head of the Swaziland delegation, says since their visit, “We really have enjoyed the wonderful people of the United States.” Photo by Aaron Burgin

ENCINITAS — The 63 athletes and 30 coaches pulled up last Thursday morning in a yellow school bus to a hero’s welcome at Encinitas Community Park, where a county supervisor, a city councilman and dozens of other people were waiting to show them a good time.

The group of athletes who hailed from Swaziland, Ghana and Thailand were headed to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Games. But, before business, they had an opportunity for some rest and relaxation in Encinitas, Del Mar and Solana Beach, one of several designated “host communities” throughout San Diego County.

At the community park, the delegates were treated to performances by a local dance troupe, exhibitions by professional skateboarders and local soccer and rugby groups, and a lunch provided by Cardiff’s Seaside Market. Later, they would head to Petco Park for a Padres game.

“This is a great way to showcase our North Coastal region and what we have to offer,” County Supervisor Dave Roberts said, who was on hand to greet the delegation. “We are one big world, and this is our opportunity to be part of a great opportunity to build good will between nations.”

The visit culminated an endeavor that began last September, when the Encinitas City Council voted 5-0 to join with their coastal neighbors — with Roberts’ office spearheading the effort — and become a Host Town amid concerns raised by the public over the use of taxpayer resources and staff for the visit.

The Special Olympics World Games returned to the United States for the first time since 1999, and brought 7,000 athletes from 177 countries to participate in 25 events. In the days leading up to the July 25 opening ceremonies, 100 cities and city groups across California hosted international delegations, typically 70 athletes and 30 coaches, to participate in social and cultural exchange.

Preparation in Encinitas in earnest in April, with parks and recreation officials in the three cities collaborating with Roberts’ office to ensure the activities would go off as planned.

“It’s beautiful,” Encinitas recreation superintendent Marilee Gorham said. “We’ve had tremendous community support of the endeavor. It goes without saying that this is community spirit at its best.”

The delegates started their visit off hearing from Roberts and Encinitas Councilman Tony Kranz, who gave brief opening remarks before the celebrations began.

“We are very proud of the hard work and dedication which has brought you to this point,” Kranz said. “Today is for you, so please enjoy your time here in Encinitas and our beautiful new community park.”

The jet-lagged visitors broke out in dance with the dance troupe as a local African drum circle welcomed them into the park.

“It’s been nice,” said Xolani Ngcamphalala, the head of the Swaziland delegation. “Since we’ve gotten here, we really have enjoyed the wonderful people of the United States.”

Ngcamphalala said the athletes had been training for months for the Olympics, but their primary goal was not to win medals.

“We are here to give a platform for our athletes to show the world what they can do,” he said. “More than anything, they are also here to bond with the athletes and the people from different countries, like the people from here in San Diego, which is part of the cultural exchange and has been very interesting.”

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