On Friday, June 13, police and Transportation Security Administration agents escorted 61 athletes and 18 coaches from around the state through the halls of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as they began their journey to the 2014 USA Games for Special Olympics in New Jersey.
In the airport, chants of “Minnesota, Minnesota” rang through the crowds, and when the athletes touched down in New Jersey, the cheer changed to “USA, USA.” Thirty-one-year-old Wyoming, Minnesota, resident and longtime Special Olympic athlete Carly Gay called this one of many highlights of the 2014 USA Games.
“It was amazing,” Gay said. “When we got off the plane, people were cheering for us in New Jersey, and we had police escorts — any events with the team the police blocked a road just for us.”
Gay, a 2002 graduate of Forest Lake, competed in bowling in high school, but qualified for the trip to New Jersey in bocce ball after just six years in the sport. She earned the opportunity to compete at the USA Games by taking gold in bocce ball at the state tournament last August, followed by an interview process in which she was chosen to represent Team Minnesota.
The USA Games showcased 3,500 athletes across 16 Olympic-style team and individual sports. The event hosted 1,000 coaches, 10,000 volunteers and 70,000 family, friends and spectators. Following what Gay called an “amazing” opening ceremony for all teams, Team Minnesota and Gay put forth a strong showing in bocce ball and came home with some hardware.
In the singles competition, Gay earned fourth place and then placed third in doubles for a medal alongside partner Susie Baumgartner, of La Crescent. Team Minnesota, which also includes Annie Friederichs, of Alexandria, and Amanda Bala, of Plymouth, came away with silver medals.
“It was awesome,” Gay said. “We actually got in front of the crowd and got our picture taken, and we were escorted onto the podium by police and National Guard and they gave us our medals, and flowers, by the way. It was awesome.”
Kay Gay, Carly’s mom, helped her daughter’s bocce ball career when forming a local team about six years ago, and she’s happy she did. The proud mom teared up when describing the atmosphere at the College of New Jersey, where the Special Olympics’ bocce ball competition took place.
“I’m happy crying — it was just a whole other world,” Kay Gay said. “No one was discouraged, there were high-fives, hugs and smiles all week. Just an awesome atmosphere. It was just amazing that everyone was so happy to be there.”
As for Carly Gay’s future in bocce ball, the athlete hopes to return to the USA Games.
“I would love to do it again if I could,” she said.