Special Olympics athlete going strong for 27 years
Picture yourself as a 10-year-old boy. You are a part of the BOCES Special Olympics track and field team. You, Thomas John “TJ” McDonnell, have traveled to Cornell University to compete. You take a deep breath and you’re off and running.
The first meet, you take home two ribbon and a silver medal. There are many more awards in your future. One hundred twenty-five more, and counting.
For 27 years, TJ McDonnell has trained and competed in a variety of sports. A Brocton resident, he is the son of Tom and Charlotte McDonnell. His mother filled in the timeline in a recent interview.
TJ participated in BOCES track and field on Tuesdays and Fridays, adding swimming, basketball and volleyball in the summer. As he got a little older, he started softball in the fall.Charlotte was quick to acknowledge TJ’s coaches and mentors. “His coaches have been a great inspiration for him,” she noted.
She wanted to especially recognize Maureen Bialaszewski at BOCES, who was in charge of Special Olympics Track and Field at SUNY Fredonia.
After graduation from BOCES, there was no more track and field, but his interests had already expanded to other sports as well.
“When he was growing up, he bowled under Maureen since he was 10 years old every other Friday at Lucky Lanes. The program stopped for adults,” Charlotte said. “In 1994, he started softball under Joe Trusso in Jamestown, who invited him when he saw him play. Duke Johnson and Mike Kessler were coaches working with the left-handed softball pitcher,” she continued.
Now John Delahoy is the coach
TJ played an important part in winning several first places with his team, and gold medals.
As he progressed, he has been going to Jamestown for at least 10 years. While working with Kevin Anderson and Joan Yost, he has participated in swimming relay, backstroke and free style. They don’t do diving.
He swims and plays softball in Jamestown, and goes to Chautauqua for golf. Dan Davison advises him regarding clubs. He has been into golf the last three years under Kevin Anderson.
He is left-handed in all sports – golfing, softball and also bowling
Charlotte wanted to recognize Mike and Mary Williams, who for the past two years have picked up and driven TJ to Jamestown for practices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They met at a softball event. The couple’s son Elijah also plays the game.
TJ has traveled throughout the entire state of New York. His younger brother, Jason’s life has also been impacted by TJ’s involvement. When Jason was about 10 years old, he went to watch his brother compete at the University of Albany. He was so impressed with the campus that he thoroughly researched it and years later, graduated from the university.
She stated that early on, the local division was called Area 24, but is now known as the western region.
She explained that “this area doesn’t go to the world games, but only those in New York state. One time, some Canadian athletes came down and swam with them at UB.”
“TJ traveled to Long Island for events. The director of the Special Olympics at the time, Bob Goold, took the athletes to NYC and showed them the sights,” Charlotte recalled.
Her own efforts should not go unnoticed. For countless trips, she has made chocolate chip cookies for the athletes to enjoy as snacks on the road and in hotels. “They went over well with the softball team,” Charlotte noted. “I’ve made so many, I don’t even like them now,” she said with a laugh.
“Although they don’t do fundraisers, they accept donations for the swim team,” Charlotte said when discussing travel expenses.
She explained the awards system for swimming. “Medals are gold, silver and bronze, with ribbons for fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth places,” she noted.
For team sports, all will get a gold medal if they are on the top team.
She doesn’t know of any others who have been in it as long as TJ, 27 years. However, the softball team has some players who are older than TJ.
He never had injuries during his practices or events.
His mother noted, “you can’t yell to him when he’s playing.” He likes to maintain his focus and to not be distracted.
Sometimes, he will undergo extra training outside of practice.
He swims at Brocton Central School, where he began swimming lessons at 6 months old. As he got older, he (and brother Jason) came to enjoy the ocean and boogie boards.
He also utilizes a batting cage to hone his skills.
TJ has over 125 medals. In 2005, he was named Chautauqua County Athlete of the Year and honored at a banquet. Some of his medals hang in his room, and the athlete of the year plaque is on his bedroom wall
He recently had a golf competition with Buffalo at Chautauqua. He has a sectional for softball in September, with practices Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Golf sectionals are Oct. 13 and 14, outside of Binghamton.
He takes winter off and starts swimming again in March
Right after summer games, around Father’s Day, he begins practicing for softball and golf.
TJ is focused and dedicated in whatever he does. He was employed at Quality Markets from 1999 to 2010 when the store closed. He was named employee of the quarter twice at Quality. Both Quality and his current employer, Tops in Westfield, where he works in dairy and frozen, have worked around his practices and events, giving him time off to participate. He and his family are appreciative of management’s flexibility and support. He works at least 30 hours a week.
He owns his own car and drives back and forth to work himself.
When asked about some proud parent moments, Charlotte responded, “When he was athlete of the year, that was good for him and the family.”
She added, “All his accomplishments – driving. I think that’s pretty good for someone who is facing challenges.”
In addition, TJ has been an usher at St. Dominic’s (formerly St. Patrick’s) Roman Catholic Church since the age of 8.
He also is known throughout the community for his outstanding inflatable holiday displays to celebrate Halloween, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
TJ himself offered several insight and some advice during a recent conversation.
He was asked if he has a favorite sport. “That’s a hard call. I feel that they’re all my favorites. If I had to choose one, I guess I would say softball because I’ve been doing it for 24 years and it paved the way,” he responded.
When asked about particular moments that stood out for him, he said, “So many great moments. all athletes are created equal and they all have the hearts of champions. Having a friend tag along. You can show them the ropes. Mark Patti played softball for a year or two.”
He was asked for advice to give those who are considering trying a sport.
“If at first you don’t get it, never give up faith. Keep on trying. I used to dream about the biggest stages once a month. Just keep dreaming. You can accomplish a lot. If you can keep your mind on it, you can achieve anything and reach your goals,” TJ responded.
Take it from someone who lives his dream.