As images of the parade of Olympians were projected on the wall, cheering and clapping rocked the gym — it’s not every day a school gets to honor its very own Olympic medalists.
Two hundred students, parents and teachers at PS 721 in lower Manhattan held a rally on March 30 to celebrate a memorable victory: Eight students at the District 75 school were members of the City Hawks, the unified floor hockey team that beat China to win a bronze medal in the Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria on March 14–25.
“This is an achievement that the kids remember for the rest of their lives,” said Chapter Leader Tracy Raymond. “Coach Joe Stewart worked above and beyond to put this team together, and everyone in the school volunteered to make it happen.”
Stewart, a physical education teacher, explained that a unified team includes students with and without special needs and disabilities. The eight students at PS 721, which serves 130 special needs students in middle school through high school, played alongside eight students from the private Fieldston school in Riverdale, the Bronx. Once they start playing together, “you can’t tell which is which,” Stewart said. “Some of our guys are better than theirs.”
The team also brought together students of different ethnic and economic backgrounds. “We had to come together in so many ways,” Stewart said.
The City Hawks joined 200 athletes and coaches from all over the country as part of the U.S. delegation. As is the case for any Olympic team, expenses were covered by the U.S. Department of State.
The experience was a series of firsts for the students: the first airplane trip for many, the first visit overseas and the first time they were television stars — ESPN profiled the City Hawks in March.
The rally crowd cheered while watching pictures of the team during a visit to an Austrian chocolate factory and at the Games’ opening ceremony. Then Stewart announced each player, praising the great team effort and individual strengths: first goal, high scorer, mental toughness, leadership.
“You deserve it,” Stewart told them. The players’ response was swift: “You deserve it!”