After a two-year pause, nearly 900 athletes returned to the field of competition for the Nassau County Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged last week.
“It’s like a field of dreams for this population,” said Susan Gordon Ryan, the Empire State Games founder, who organized the first event in 1985.
Athletes between 5 and 21 competed at the 36th annual games in a variety of sporting events and challenges, including tack races, discus throwing, long jumps, wheelchair basketball, swimming, table tennis and archer.
Since its inception, the Empire State Games have encourage skill development and sports participation, as well as foster sportsmanship and camaraderie for physically challenged individuals.
Ryan developed the Empire State Games after Nassau County hosted the 1984 Paralympics. She worked with state officials to launch a program designed to continue that competitive tradition at a much more local level.
Today, New York remains the only state to host a program for the physically challenged.
“We wanted New York to become a training ground for young, physically challenged athletes,” Ryan said. “And this had never done before.”
Nearly 250 athletes showed up for those first games in 1985 — a number which exploded to 1,400 athletes just two years later. But the Empire State
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 the games the past two years. That led to significant uncertainty about how many athletes would participate this year with the Empire State Games’ return.
The Mitchell Athletic Complex and Nassau Community College have hosted the event stretching back to the beginning. And providing transportation to these venues, Ryan said, is key for driving turnout among the physically.
The Nassau Inter-County Express local bus system has provided transportation to and from the event for athletes — who typically stay in dorms at Hofstra University in the leadup to the games — for the past decade.
“You’ve got to be part of the community,” said NICE chief executive Jack Khzouz.
NICE bussed 45 athletes from Hofstra to the two event venues in vehicles specifically outfitted to fit a number of mobility devices. The athletes were assisted on and off the buses by volunteers.
“Anytime anybody needs to go anywhere, we’re there for them,” Khzouz said. “For that weekend, they’re the stars, and we’re there to cheer them on.”
The 36-year journey has included lots of ups and downs, but the goal of the Empire State Games has never changed.
While some who have competed in past events have gone on to compete at the Paralympics, many others are focused on fitness. Still, the impetus of the event has always been creating 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, attention, joy,” Ryan said. “It’s just a special place.”