Donna Mooneyham (left) with Abigail Reznek, a swimmer from Maryland who competed on the U.S. aquatics team that Mooneyham coached at the World Special Olympics in Los Angeles. (Contributed photos)
Donna Mooneyham, an adjunct faculty member at East Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Performance, said she experienced many heartwarming moments as a coach of the U.S. aquatics team at the World Special Olympics. Held in Los Angeles July 25 through Aug. 2, the games attracted 6,500 athletes representing 165 countries.
But the one experience she will always treasure, she said, happened after she reached out to another East Carolina University graduate for help motivating an athlete on her team.
“I had an athlete from Kentucky and (at first) he was grumpy and lowly motivated. He wasn’t really gung ho for the competition. As I tried to connect with this individual, I found out he was a big NASCAR fan, and so am I. So we started talking about racing.”
Mooneyham reached out to one of her former ECU students, Greg Morin, who is a pit crew coach at Hendrick Motor Sports in Charlotte. Morin sent the athlete several items donated by NASCAR drivers.
After that, “he started getting very excited about swimming, he smiled more and he seemed to really take off with this encouragement. (At the next competition) he had his personal best time in swimming.”
On the last day of competition, Mooneyham said Morin called to let her know that he had sent something special to the athlete – a video of NASCAR great Jeff Gordon congratulating him for achieving his personal best time in the pool.
“That was such an inspiration that he went out and medaled,” Mooneyham said.
This was Mooneyham’s second time volunteering as a coach at the World Special Olympics. She also was an aquatics coach at the 2011 games held in Greece.
“This time it seemed more special because we were competing here in the U.S., which meant the families of a lot of the athletes could attend. And it was broadcast on ESPN, so there was so much more public awareness about the event. I think it was just really something special that (the parents) could have that experience” of watching their children compete against athletes from around the world, Mooneyham said.
She said a final tally showed that members of the U.S. Aquatics team won 86 medals.
– Steve Tuttle