TRENTON, N.J. – It was a stirring sight on Friday evening as the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games came to a dramatic close during a moving ceremony at Trenton’s Sun National Bank Center. Emceed by FOX Sports 1’s Molly McGrath and Mike Hill, the thousands in attendance reflected on the tremendous competition of the previous week’s Games.
In between performances by recordings artists Angela Laino & The Trix and guitarist Chris Ayer, WWE.com sat down for an in-depth discussion with Games Chairman and CEO TJ Nelligan. WWE and the Games Chairman spoke about the culmination of the long road to the Special Olympics USA Games, what the partnership with WWE meant to the competitors and how one People’s Champion touched an athlete’s heart.
WWE.COM: This event has been four years in the making. What’s the journey been like for you?
TJ NELLIGAN: It’s been a remarkable journey. It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions for four years, but to see the accomplishments and achievements of our athletes this week has been unbelievable. They don’t want to go home.
WWE.COM: What have been some of the highlights for you over the past week?
NELLIGAN: For me, it’s been to watch these athletes reach personal bests in powerlifting, track and field and swimming. They’re so proud, and they should be, of all their accomplishments. And to see the smiles on their faces, I know they’ll remember this week for the rest of their lives. Because of all the massive media exposure, we told the message of Special Olympics, and how it can change everybody’s children with intellectual disabilities. In the future, we’ll have a lot more athletes signing up, and we’re going to change a lot more lives.
WWE.COM: We know that you have a special connection, because your son is one of the athletes. What was it like to watch him compete?
NELLIGAN: We had about 60 relatives here. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, all of his cousins came to watch [my son] Sean compete. He was on a four-man bocce team, and they won a gold medal in that event. Bob Belfiore, who started the Law Enforcement Torch Run here and former Chief of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, gave him his medals. That made it so meaningful to Sean, because he’s known him for 20 years. In singles bocce, he was in the gold medal game, but a young man from Louisville, Ky., beat him. Tough match. He came over and told me, “Dad, that Kentucky guy was good!” He high-fived the other guy and they had a ball no matter what.
WWE.COM: Is your son a WWE fan?
NELLIGAN: He’s a huge WWE fan. We went to Monday Night Raw up in Hartford, Conn., last year. It’s amazing to see the athletes – whether at Olympic Town with the Divas or at the Opening Ceremonies when Big Show came in – the roar of the crowd was the loudest anytime anything with WWE was mentioned. All we had to do was put the logo up and people just went crazy.
WWE.COM: During the Closing Ceremony, all of a sudden, Kofi Kingston popped up on the screen and everybody went nuts.
NELLIGAN: Yeah, it was crazy. The line at Olympic Town to get autographs from the Divas went around the corner. I saw one athlete stand in line to meet Naomi, and it was an amazing sight. All of a sudden, the person administering the line pointed to him and said it was his turn. He stopped, stared at her and started hyperventilating, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and walked toward her. Naomi said, “Oh my God!” and she gave him the biggest hug. It was unbelievable.
WWE.COM: Do any other special moments with WWE Superstars come to mind?
NELLIGAN: Big Show. He’s awesome. And they go crazy for Big Show. I got to know him a little bit, and he just exudes stardom when the athletes see him. One athlete from Arkansas came up to me and said, “I’m on the board of directors for Special Olympics Arkansas, and I know that you’re the man.” He poked me in the chest and said, “Get me Big Show. I need to meet Big Show. Make it happen!”
At WrestleMania at the MetLife Stadium when we announced the partnership, an athlete named Ashley Weber was talking to me about three hours before the show saying, “I just want to meet The Rock.” And here comes The Rock walking toward her behind her back. I looked up and said, “You really want to meet The Rock?” He tapped her on the shoulder and she was in shock. She put her hand out to shake his hand, and he said, “Oh no, we don’t shake hands here. We hug.” And she wouldn’t let go.
WWE.COM: How did the WWE partnership come about for you?
NELLIGAN: The President of Connecticut Special Olympics had a relationship with WWE. We went up, met with executives, including WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon. We said that one of the things we were trying to accomplish was to tell the message of Special Olympics to the world: How remarkable our athletes are, and more importantly, that parents need to get their children involved. I’ve seen the changes. With WWE producing this unbelievably high level of quality in TV shows, commercials, PSAs, Live Events, and getting our athletes involved all around the country, and make them feel loved and wanted, it was absolutely wonderful. The Unified Sports that we did with WWE Superstars and Divas turned out to be one of the hugest hits of the past year that we’ve been partners. We can’t thank WWE enough.
WWE.COM: What are the biggest similarities between WWE and the message that Special Olympics is trying to convey?
NELLIGAN: Special Olympics builds confidence, self-esteem and changes lives through sport. WWE is out there trying to make everybody smile. I knew we’d get the media, marketing and worldwide presence of WWE. What we didn’t realize when we got involved, was how huge our athletes are fans of WWE. That came across at every place we went.
WWE.COM: You think we’ll see any of these athletes inside a ring or a steel cage one of these days?
NELLIGAN: Absolutely. I sure hope so.