GROTON -- A local husband and wife team were honored by the Special Olympics Massachusetts last month when they were inducted into the group's Hall of Fame and their names permanently inscribed at the Yawkey Sports Training Center in Marlboro.
At a special ceremony and banquet held Sept. 27, Robert and Judy Russell were inducted into the Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for outstanding athletes, volunteers, coaches, families and partners who have made an indelible impact on the organization throughout the years.
"This recognition was not just for us, but for all the coaches, volunteers, parents, stores, and the mountains that let us ski," said Robert Russell. He and Judy coach and manage the Special Olympics Massachusetts Nashoba Shooting Stars ski team and act as assistant coaches to the group's Nashoba cycling team. "It belongs to everyone who helps us. Certainly it's not just for anything we do."
"It was a beautiful night," said Judy Russell. "The evening started off with the unveiling of a bronze statue in front of the building, then we had a banquet dinner where they inducted us into the Hall of Fame. There must have been over 300 people there."
"Judy and I both know we do some work but when you get down to it, we have about 25 or 30 coaches who are the ones that really work with the athletes," said Robert. "They do all the work that counts and our hats are off to them.
"It was a huge honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame," Judy said. "We were at a Special Olympics summer games event at UMass Amherst in August when it was announced that we were nominated. We were totally shocked!"
Involved with the Special Olympics program for 17 years, the Russells have concentrated on coaching the Shooting Stars for the past 10 years with their own son, DJ, a successful participant.
Skiers on the Shooting Stars team range from 10 years old to 26, none of whom have physical disabilities but are simply developmentally challenged. They meet twice each week at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area during the winter months to practice and get in shape for the games. During the off season, the athletes ride bicycles with the Nashoba cycling team.
"Our athletes can't just stop using their muscles when they're not skiing," explained Robert. "So we wanted them to get involved in cycling to keep their muscles from going. The worst thing for a skier is to have to start all over again training their muscles every winter. Cycling helps keep them athletically fit."
But with all the time and effort it takes to keep up with two separate sporting programs for athletes that demand much more attention and patience than others, the Russells still retain the same level of enthusiasm for the work as they did nearly two decades ago when they first became involved.
"It's a very rewarding experience," explained Judy. "We have so many people doing so many different things and can count on them doing it year in and year out. We get a tremendous amount of support, so we never get burned out. Of course, our son is involved with both the skiing and cycling teams, but we do have such great teams. Really, we've all been together for so long, it's more like a family than a team. It's hard to get burned out when you have such a diverse group of athletes like the ones we have. In skiing for instance, they're all at different grades from beginners to experts. And a lot of our coaches are the parents of athletes and, in the end, that's what we really want. We want the athletes to feel that they're part of a family."
"A perfect example of the kind of athlete who's on our team is one with Down syndrome with no speech and no hearing," added Robert. "But he absolutely loves to ski and couldn't be happier to be with us. When he's with us, he's so happy, he comes and throws his arms around you. In that case, he had a difficult transition in his life going from a facility to a group home where he is really prospering. But he's not a young person. Not everyone who comes to us is a young person."
"I think it's the athletes themselves that keep us going," insisted Judy. "To see the look on the face of a new skier when he goes down the mountain for the first time and says 'I did it!' is wonderful. To see the looks on their faces after a competition and they get their medals and everything, saying 'I got a medal for skiing!' It's something everybody should come out and watch because it's so very heartwarming. It really is."
And no one is more excited to see the Russells honored as they were last month by Special Olympics Massachusetts than the person who has been their biggest booster all along:
"I love skiing, and I'm so happy to have them in the Hall of Fame!" declared son DJ.
But if anyone expected that the Russells would rest on their laurels after last month's induction ceremony, they were sorely mistaken. With little time for a break between sports regimens, the husband and wife team are already planning fundraising for the Shooting Stars' upcoming season with the Jolly Jaunt 5K walk and run scheduled for Dec. 2.
Anyone interested in either making a donation or becoming involved with the Shooting Stars can contact the Russells at 978-448-3087.
Let a press release by Special Olympics Massachusetts have the last word on the Russell's dedication to making the lives of the athletes in their care as full and accomplished as they can be:
"Through their efforts, the Russells have truly improved the lives of their participating athletes," reads the statement. "All the while embodying the consistent quality shared by all Special Olympics Massachusetts Hall of Fame coaches ... hardworking, extraordinarily patient, and always positive."