SUFFOLK COUNTY

Hoping sports companies will ‘brand’ Special Olympians

Campaign kicks off this week in support of Special Olympics athletes

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Getting a gold medal in bench press is not an easy task.

But Daniel Fletcher, 32, from East Moriches, has won a gold medal as first in his weight class for bench press in the Special Olympics Nationals. He’s also received a silver medal in deadlift as second in his weight class. Besides these and other accolades, he participates in a total of nine sports. Fletcher, whose practice schedule alone is worthy of a gold medal, also works as an attendant at Bowlero in Sayville.

But he’s not featured as an athlete on any sports-brand ads as famous athletes are. Neither are any other elite Special Olympians.

That’s what Special Olympics New York is hoping to change as they kick off their “Your Brand Here” campaign, challenging sports companies to get onboard.

Fletcher, one of three Special Olympians chosen for the campaign, is the only Long Islander. Two others, Izzy Brinkerhoff from Albany and Genesis Duran from New York City, are also a part of the campaign.

“We have many corporate sponsors, but we don’t have that big brand name with sports sponsorships,” said Stacey Hengsterman, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics New York, the largest chapter in the country.

“I really do think people will say, ‘I never thought of that.’”

Hengsterman, the mother of a Down syndrome child, noted that Special Olympics athletes already feel some sort of isolation, but when COVID hit
this year, “It took away their training classes and competitions and we had to drastically change our budget,” she said.

Special Olympics New York wound up offering a six-week virtual program and resources for athletes.

“So we had no idea when we asked sponsors for support, [what would
happen] even with not having our gala [they turned 50 this year], games and going virtual,” she said. “I think people really appreciated what we were doing and saw the athletes in a new light.”

That fueled the campaign. It will be featured on the Special Olympics New York website and through social media. Daniel’s parents, Edna and Warren Fletcher, will tell you that Special Olympics is Daniel’s own society. Warren
is a coach for the nine sports Daniel trainsin; Edna coaches also.

This is a quick version of Daniel’s training commitment before COVID.

He powerlifts at Gold’s Gym in Smithtown; in golf, he trains at Dix Hills Golf Course; softball is at Mount Sinai in Heritage Park. There’s floor hockey at Commack Middle School, basketball at Christ the King Church in Commack, bowling at Bowlero in Sayville, boxing at New Village Park in Holbrook, then equestrian training at Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island, where his Eagle Scout project—a mounting block—is is located.

“It teaches me to train and train hard, helps me to get strong, makes
me happy, lets me make friends and helps me celebrate,” said Daniel.

He still celebrates, but COVID put a crimp in the on-site training sessions.

Edna and Warren provide most of the transportation, but when COVID
hit in March, weekly evening virtual meetings were set up.

“The athletes have been able to say hi, how they are doing, and how their week is going,” Edna said. “Prior to that we will do a 10-to-15-minute exercise video.” Edna has incorporated weekly jokes; Warren sometimes initiates a sing-along to lighten up the sessions.

“If anyone had a birthday, they would do a drive-by,” she said.

The photo session that ultimately had Daniel drinking an unnamed sports drink in the ad campaign with a barbell at his feet took place last month at the Cross Island YMCA in Queens.

“Daniel had on a patriotic robe and socks, and his blue singlet from the national games,” she said of some of his attire. His call name is Mr. U.S.A.

P.S.: He gave out American flags to everyone at the shoot.

“He will tell other people to consider joining Special Olympics,” Edna said. “He’s a local messenger and goes around talking to people about what it is.”

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