Special Olympics Massachusetts summer intern Emily Goodnow reflects on a weekend in early June of this year, when photographer Len Rubenstien and his crew came to The Yawkey Sports Training Center to photograph a group of our athletes, for what would become some amazing images, a gallery show at the ICA Boston and much more. Emily has waited patiently for this to finally be posted, and so here it is. Better late than never, Goodnow.
-By Emily Goodnow
On a rainy Saturday morning, I drove to the Yawkey Sports Training Center in Marlborough, home of Special Olympics Massachusetts to observe Len Rubenstein photograph Special Olympics Massachusetts athletes. As soon as I walked into the building, I felt as if I had just entered a family reunion of SOMA athletes, their families, volunteers and employees. I was greeted by warm, friendly faces that appeared completely unaffected by the rainstorm occurring outside. I introduced myself as “the intern” and expected that I will be overlooked since I am new to the office. Instead, I am fully welcomed in the SOMA family.
When I arrive, Len and his two assistants are hovered over a Mac computer, reviewing the photos Len has just taken of 100-year-old Richard Hyman Sher. Len explains to me that his goal is to deliver, “not your typical portrait,” in the sense that he wants to capture the athletes’ natural qualities. For example, Len chose to photograph Richard shirtless. Richard’s Special Olympics medal hangs around his neck and shines over his bare chest in a provocative yet incredibly honorable fashion. I know from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of photo shoot where the photos get retouched — this is the real deal.
The bubbly Neil sisters prepare for their close-ups. Alyssa, a SOMA athlete, takes some solo photos before her sister Courtney, a Unified partner, joins her. Len comments on the vibrant blue colors of Alyssa’s Special Olympics jersey. Courtney chimed in, “I told her to wear that,” as any good sister would say. Next Len begins to photograph the sisters together. As the camera flashes, the girls stifle a few giggles. Their coy laughter and broad smiles are entirely infectious. Len captures the special bond between Alyssa and Courtney by directing Courtney to place a medal around her sisters’ neck. In this image, neither of the sisters’ smile, yet there is an implicit joy that speaks for itself.
Tyler Lagasse nonchalantly bounces a golf ball on the end of his club. He executes this difficult task as if he could do it with his eyes closed. He then switches with ease to juggling multiple golf balls. I am awed and inspired by his innate skill. Tyler is obviously a successful hall of fame athlete because of his intensive concentration. Len portrays Tyler’s admirable focus by directing him to firmly grip his golf club and rest it on his shoulder. As he stares into the camera, I am convinced that Tyler Lagasse does not let anything distract him from reaching his goals.
The wonderfully wise eighty-six year old Jeff Bramley stands underneath the bright lights patiently, always willing to follow Len’s instructions. Jeff exudes a warm smile and a big heart. Not only does Jeff compete in Special Olympics events, he volunteers as well. When asked why he chooses to donate his time, he says he wants to be with his friends. As I view Jeff’s photos, his incredibly humble demeanor is reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Matt Millet, the business man, arrives at the Yawkey Sports Center next. Although he is dressed in a soccer jersey and shorts, he could easily be wearing a suit. A board
member for Special Olympics, Matt attends many meetings for the organization and is clearly well-informed as he speaks with the SOMA employees about upcoming events and fundraisers. As Len photographs Matt head-on, he captures Matt’s commanding presence in SOMA’s athletics and organization. Matt Millet is one strong-willed, business-savvy young man.
The ambitious Amanda Church. She swims, plays basketball and flag football like many other SOMA athletes. Yet her off the field activities are just as impressive; she also
interns at the SOMA South Section office. Amanda is extremely hard-working and determined in all of her endeavors. Amanda’s mother and father stand by Len’s side throughout the photo shoot and are eager to help in any way they can. As they place medals over Amanda’s shoulder for one particular shot, they silently congratulate her on all of her successes. Amanda’s accomplishments go beyond her medals, however; she has mastered the poise of a successful young woman.
A.J. Strack takes the stage. This nine-year-old soccer player is not just an athlete, he is an entertainer. As the camera flashes, A.J. claps, shakes his hips and sings for his
“entourage,” (a supportive family of his mother, sister, and his teacher’s assistant.) They are all incredibly supportive, particularly his sister who cheers “good job A.J.!” throughout the photo shoot. While Len photographs A.J., his entourage and Len’s assistants hush to hear the soft sound of A.J. singing the National Anthem. He chooses to sing the National Anthem because he has sung it before many SOMA events. Although he is barely audible, his hushed voice is heart-warming. A.J. keeps everyone on their toes by switching from the National Anthem to the ABC’s and then proceeding to smile at Len’s camera. A.J. captivates the attention of everyone in the room with his natural musical and comedic talent.
After a long day of interviewing, note-taking and filming, my energy level is dwindling when the last athlete of the day arrives. Yet when Melissa Reilly enters the building, her exuberance is revitalizing. As Len explains his vision for the photo shoot to Melissa, she smiles and exclaims, “Let’s do it!” I immediately recognize that this young woman is always up for a challenge. Melissa has been selected to compete in the 2013 Special Olympics World Games in South Korea for Alpine Skiing. She is also a SOMA Hall of Fame athlete and a global messenger for the organization. If that isn’t enough, she also interns at the Massachusetts State Senate office and takes classes at Middlesex Community College. Len captures Melissa’s ability to juggle many different tasks by asking her to balance her skis on one shoulder and poles on the other. Melissa manages her academics, athletics and career with admirable grace.
When I left the Yawkey Sports Center at the end of the day, my mind was swirling with the inspirational images Len created and the noteworthy words spoken by the amazing people I met. I felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to meet such talented, motivated athletes and their undying support systems of family and friends. I was thankful to be a part of the SOMA family and I looked forward to meeting more of its members in the near future.