Contingent led by Nova joins group of Special Olympians for day of competition
NEW YORK -- The gymnasium at the St. Rose of Lima School is quaint, but it's become home for the Rockaway Athletes. Nearly every Monday since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the coast of Rockaway Beach, the Rockaway chapter of the Special Olympics meets for an hour and a half for a chance to play a sport as a team.
"We're going to do our normal warmup like we always do," Joe Featherston called out to the group.
Except this Monday in particular was different. On this day, Preston Claiborne was helping to lead stretches. On this day, Ivan Nova stood among them in the typical circle that they form, lining the gymnasium for warmups. On this day, the New York Yankees had come to play with them.
Adam Warren, Zoilo Almonte, David Adams and Alberto Gonzalez joined Claiborne and Nova early on Monday afternoon at St. Rose of Lima to play with the Rockaway Athletes and kick off HOPE Week.
Almonte patrolled the paint on the basketball court. Gonzalez smacked ground balls around the gym in a Wiffle ball game. Warren hurled kickballs across the plate on the outdoor blacktop. The activities left Nova glistening with sweat less than halfway through the afternoon.
"The running. I already did my workout," he said with a smile.
The respite was a welcome one for an organization hit as hard by Sandy as any. St. Camillus-St. Virgilius Parish had played host to the Rockaway Athletes for the entirety of the organization's 17-year existence, but Superstorm Sandy destroyed the gymnasium, leaving the athletes without that home away from home.
First they tried St. Francis, then a location in Brooklyn, before coming out to Rockaway and the St. Rose of Lima gym that they spend part of every week at. When they were finally reunited at St. Rose of Lima after months apart, there was cheering and hugging and kissing. They were back together.
"I really didn't realize how important it was to them," Featherston said. "That it was their social network, and for many of them, really their only social network."
On Monday, they welcomed the Yankees into that network.
"It makes the community brighter," said Patrick Tritschler, a 35-year-old member of the program.
When the program first started, it had just six athletes and eight coaches. Or was it eight coaches and six athletes? Featherston gets it mixed up -- it's been such a long time, and the program's come so far.
There were 35 athletes in attendance on Monday, and the program generally consists of anywhere between 40 and 53 members, Featherston said.
On Monday, their smiles as the Yankees entered the gym were only matched by Nova's beaming grin. He had come by as part of HOPE Week once before and had an incredibly rewarding experience, one that he replicated this year.
"It feels really good. Unbelievable," Nova said. "I love the kids."
Featherston said there are some Mets fans in the group -- "some very strong Mets fans" -- but for Monday, they were all Yankees fans. One superfan that he pointed out in particular was Tritschler.
Tritschler remembers getting woken up in 2009 to the news that the Yankees had won the World Series and screaming with joy. His favorite Yankee, Derek Jeter, wasn't there, but it was still an unbelievable experience.
"I never thought I would be playing kickball or softball with the Yankees," Tritschler said. "And all of it's totally awesome. I love the Yankees.
"It's, like, better than my birthday."
David Wilson is an associate reporter for MLB.com.