Brad Marr started to play volleyball with the Special Olympics more than 20 years ago in Clinton County — a Pennsylvania community about an hour drive north of State College — when he was 17.
This week, he’s in Abu Dhabi for the Special Olympics World Games, coaching his former team.
During Special Olympics USA’s sendoff at a hotel in Newark, New Jersey, Marr joked about the main difference between being a player and coach.
“All the things I used to complain about, now I’m the one telling them what I used to complain about,” he said.
That includes making sure his team is on time and in the right Special Olympics uniform one farewell banquet to another on the chaotic day before they leave.
Qualifying for the games is a big deal, said Marr. None of the athletes has ever traveled by plane. That their quest is leading them to the sparkling capital of the United Arab Emirates makes the journey all the more unimaginable.
Talent and a little luck
The World Games are a culmination of state and national competitions, taking place every two years and alternating between winter and summer.
While the Clinton County volleyball team has won Pennsylvania’s top spot in its ability group for eight years running, getting to the World Games required more than skill.
States and countries are allocated a certain number of slots for the games by sport, and that changes every two years.
For the 2019 games, Pennsylvania got a slot for a volleyball team — the first time since Clinton County’s team has been placing first in its division.
The team then had to win a random draw among all the other volleyball division winners in the state.
“We’re from a very small community in middle central Pennsylvania no one’s ever heard about, so it’s incredible for them — and for us — to be able to go there and not only represent our home county, but the whole entire country,” said assistant coach Sarah Fromknecht.
Christopher Smith, who’s played in the Special Olympics for 15 years, said his teammates are aware it could be decades before the stars line up this way again.
“So I’m really looking forward to seeing what other nations have to offer as far as competition goes,” he said.
The Special Olympics organization has been serving athletes with intellectual disabilities for more than 50 years. While it sponsors several health initiatives, it’s likely best known for the more than 100,000 competitions it hosts each year. Athletes compete in divisions based on their age and ability.
Special Olympics Pennsylvania has more than 18,000 registered athletes.
Children can sign up as young as 8, and there’s no age cap. That’s what makes the organization so unique, said assistant coach Charles Litz.
“Whether it’s an athlete with Down syndrome or an athlete that just can’t spell, you know, I mean they’re all welcome,” he said. “They don’t turn anybody away.”
All in the family
Elainie Litz, who has gained confidence over five years in Special Olympics, said she looks forward to interacting with different cultures and making new friends.
“The way they dress is different, the way they act is different, and I just think that’s really cool. And just to learn about that would be awesome,” she said.
Conner Borner said he hopes to meet one of his heroes.
“I heard there are going to be some celebrities up there and I’d like to meet some of them,” he said. “Especially Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
That doesn’t mean the athletes won’t get nervous, but Kathy Marr said it will be OK because they’ll be together.
“We’re not just a team, we’re a family,” she said. “We’re connected through thick and thin, we’ve got each other’s back, you know?”
That isn’t a sports metaphor.
Kathy Marr is head coach Brad Marr’s sister. Elainie Litz is her daughter. And Kathy’s two sons are also on the team.
Robert Borner Jr., the father of one of the athletes, said he knows the team’s journey to gold won’t be easy.
“Let me win,” holds the Special Olympics motto. “But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Though victory is far from assured for the Clinton County team, bravery is guaranteed.
That, and the trip of a lifetime.