A couple recalls the games of ’95
Bob and Joyce Zaleski both said they vividly remember their experience of playing host to Iceland’s Special Olympics team back in 1995 when the games took place in New Haven.
Seven thousand athletes in total, 2,000 coaches, 15,000 family members, 45,000 volunteers, and 500,000 spectators including former President Bill Clinton were in attendance for the games.
Bob’s role as the host town chairman was to accommodate the 56 people who came from Iceland and make sure all of the behind-the-scenes work ran smoothly. Half of the people who came from Iceland were athletes.
He became the host town chairman through the Knights of Columbus in Shelton. After becoming the grand knight, Zaleski received word that it was almost “mandated” that he assume the role for the hosting of a team for the upcoming Olympic games.
Prior to their arrival, Bob said he had hoped to raise around $7,000 to house and entertain the teams from Iceland, but ended up raising more than $70,000 thanks to donations statewide. Bob added that the support of the city also made the event possible.
“Local restaurants and Stop & Shop provided food vouchers for everyone from Iceland,” said Zaleski. “The grocery bill would have been exponential with all of these people.”
“They were fortunate because Iceland had also funded them,” said Joyce. “Some of the other athletes that came didn’t even have shoes.”
Each individual team from Iceland stayed with a volunteer host family before making its way to New Haven to stay at Yale for participation in the games.
During their time in the city the Zaleskis organized trips for the team to the Beardsley Zoo, New York City to see the Statue ofLliberty, and the Trumbull mall. The teams got a chance to see the town and explore as they also visited some local restaurants and Indian Well.
Bob said he has the most fond memories of the opening ceremony of the games and can still imagine the Yale Bowl in New Haven being packed with 80,000 plus people.
During the torch run that passed through the Huntington Green, the Zaleskis were both awarded tokens of appreciation from Iceland’s team.
“The head of Iceland’s Special Olympics, her name was Anna Karolina, and Thordor, whose last name I can’t remember, presented us with the gifts,” said Zaleski. “I got this little gold statue and my wife got a piece of jewelry which was made in Iceland. The gifts they gave us meant a lot, but the best piece of memorabilia we have are the memories.”
“When the athletes came over the finish line, each one of them was so quick to embrace one another,” said Joyce. “Whether they came in first or they came in last they were all happy to compete and to finish.”
He said the team showed so much appreciation to the people of Shelton and even ended up staying an extra day. “After they competed that was supposed to be the last time we would see them, but they said ‘no, no, no,’” said Bob. “They wanted to come back so we organized an impromptu picnic at Indian Well. I remember scrambling around looking for chicken and stuff to feed them. Everyone welcomed them back and were happy to see them.”
The Zaleskis went on to say that most of the families who hosted teams from Iceland have moved away but the experience is something that they will always be able to bond over.