Empire State Games returns to make more history | Herald Community Newspapers


After a two-year hiatus, nearly 900 athletes returned to the competition field for the Nassau County Empire State Games for the Physically Handicapped last week.

“It’s like a field of dreams for this population,” said Susan Gordon Ryan, founder of the Empire State Games, which organized the first event in 1985.

Athletes aged 5 to 21 competed at the 36th Annual Games in a variety of sporting events and challenges, including harness racing, discus throws, long jumps, wheelchair basketball, swimming, table tennis and archery.

Since its inception, the Empire State Games has encouraged skill development and athletic participation, as well as sportsmanship and camaraderie for people with disabilities.

Ryan developed the Empire State Games after Nassau County hosted the 1984 Paralympic Games. She worked with state officials to launch a program designed to continue this competitive tradition on a much more local level.

Today, New York remains the only state to host a program for the physically disabled.

“We wanted New York to become a training ground for young athletes with reduced mobility,” Ryan said. “And that had never been done before.”

Nearly 250 athletes showed up for those first games in 1985 – a number that exploded to 1,400 athletes two years later. But the Empire State

The games hit a stumbling block in 2010 after the state cut funding, requiring a fundraising effort led by then-county executive Ed Mangano to keep the event afloat. .

And then there was the coronavirus pandemic, canceling games for the past two years. This led to significant uncertainty about the number of athletes who would compete this year with the return of the Empire State Games.

The Mitchell Athletic Complex and Nassau Community College have hosted the event from the start. And providing transportation to those sites, Ryan said, is key to boosting physical participation.

The local Nassau Inter-County Express bus system has provided transport to and from the event for athletes – who typically stay in dormitories at Hofstra University before the games – for the past decade.

“You have to be part of the community,” said NICE chief executive Jack Khzouz.

NICE transported 45 athletes from Hofstra to the two event venues in specially equipped vehicles to accommodate a number of mobility devices. The athletes were helped on and off the buses by volunteers.

“Whenever someone needs to go anywhere, we are there for them,” Khzouz said. “For this weekend, they are the stars, and we are here to cheer them on.”

The 36-year journey has had many ups and downs, but the Empire State Games’ focus has never changed.

While some who have competed in past events have competed in the Paralympic Games, many others focus on physical fitness. Still, the impetus for the event has always been to create new social channels while building self-esteem, Ryan said.

Development in these areas – and the bond formed between event volunteers and athletes over the course of three days – is the most important aspect of the Empire State Games.

“It’s this constant transmission of love, of care, of joy,” Ryan said. “It’s just a special place.”

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