The heart of an athlete

By John Cappiello 

Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to accompany the Special Olympics Massachusetts athletics team to the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. This is the second time I’ve been able to attend this event, the first time being in 2010 in Lincoln Nebraska. During both games I got to experience so many moments I will never forget. My fellow coaches and I were able to work with so many amazing athletes during these events and each one of them have something special to offer. One of the athletes I coached this year was a young man named ‎Jared Baillargeon. We’re lucky here in Massachusetts. We’ve been able to watch some tough athletes come through this state. Tom Brady, Cam Neely, Micky Ward… All tough as can be, but if you ask me, no list of “tough athletes” is complete until you add Jared. Let me tell you why.

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Jared Baillargeon at USA Games training camp at The Yawkey Sports Training Center in Marlborough.

In November 2013 I met Jared for the first time. It was easy to see that he was excited for the opportunity to represent Massachusetts at the games and eager to get going. So it was a bit of a shock when he approached our head coach Jenn Walsh and myself and told us he needed to miss some practice time. In February he was going in for surgery… open heart surgery.

Time frame check. We were leaving for USA games in June and he was having surgery on his heart in February. I will admit, I wondered if he really would be able to make it. I’ve had family members that have had various heart surgeries and I saw how hard it was for them to come back. Still, we all cheered for Jared and hoped he would be able to join us in New Jersey.

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Jared with fellow athlete Daniel Lundin and coach Jenn Walsh at the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 USA Games.

In late April, Team Massachusetts all got together for “National Games Weekend” in Marlborough. This is our chance to have all our teams, athletes, coaches and staff together. I personally love these two days. It does exactly what it’s supposed to. It builds an already existing camaraderie into something even stronger. We really become family at this event. Not just with our individual team but with everyone going to represent Massachusetts. There was no greater image that weekend than seeing Jared front and center. Surgery was behind him, he was looking and feeling good and he was ready to work hard. I was amazed. Not just because he seemed physically ready, but more importantly he was mentally prepared. He was so upbeat and happy to be there you would have been hard pressed to convince someone he just had major surgery. His attitude and his humor infected everyone he met and we all were thrilled that he was going to make it to New Jersey with us.

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Jared Baillargeon before his race at the 2014 USA Games in New Jersey.

So we were off in June to the USA Games and they did not disappoint. Everyone representing Special Olympics Massachusetts did us proud. As for Jared, we all waited for his first attempt at a medal. I honestly believe that the athletes don’t have to win medals to consider a trip like this a success. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but getting there, competing and giving all they have, is enough so they can say “I succeeded”.

All Jared had to do was get out there and compete, but how cool would it be for this guy to medal after his surgery? Very cool. And everyone watching was thinking it. As we waited for his 100-meter dash, everyone from his family, coaches and fellow athletes were aware of what Jared had to go through to get to this moment. I know we all were cheering a little harder for him. When that gun went off Jared took off with such determination and never let up, not until he crossed the finish line, securing himself a silver medal.

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Jared Baillargeon competing in track & field at the 2014 USA Games in New Jersey.

And the crowd goes wild! He did it and we all couldn’t have been happier. I got to see Jared at staging as he waited to receive that silver medal. I almost couldn’t find the words to let him know how proud I was of him and how proud I was to say I was his coach. Oh, but Jared wasn’t finished. He competed in three more events and medaled in all three, including a gold medal in mini-javelin. In a matter of months I watched a young guy have surgery on his heart, only to show everyone he had more heart and was tougher than any big name athlete out there.

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Jared gets congratulated by coach John Cappiello after taking silver in track at the 2014 USA Games.

Jared recently Facebooked me to make sure I knew that one of the guys from our athletics team made it to World Games. That’s Jared. Just a good guy. Yes, I’m happy to be able to say I was his coach, but what’s even better is that I can call him my friend.

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