The three local athletes who participated in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles had the experience of a lifetime.
Rusty Davis and Matt “Swandog” Swanson both earned a bronze medal in softball, awarded by former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
Kristen Arias, of Arroyo Grande, met first lady Michelle Obama and was “treated like royalty” in her role as an ambassador for the Games, according to Kristen’s mother, Patty Arias.
As an event dignitary, Kristen Arias attended a red carpet movie premier, meeting a United Nations liaison and posing for photos with actor Johnny Knoxville and former California first lady Maria Shriver — whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics.
Never miss a local story.
Davis, of San Luis Obispo, played right-center field, and Swanson, of Avila Beach, played right field for Team Southern California.
Davis said he went 2-for-2 at the plate in one of the games. But the cultural extravaganza and camaraderie with athletes from other countries, including exchanges of national pins, was as important to him as any achievement on the field.
He even shared an emotional moment with a player from Puerto Rico, whose mother had recently passed away; Davis said his father has died, too, and they both pointed to the sky.
“I’ll never forget this experience,” said Davis, wearing his bronze medal around his neck, reminiscing on his 10-day enjoyment. “It will always be close to my heart. I didn’t want to come home.”
Their squad, one of three U.S. teams, competed in Division 2, the middle division based on skill level, against teams such as Australia, Puerto Rico, India and Mexico.
“I had some good throws,” Swanson said. “I got some hits. It was a great experience.”
Davis said that, as a lifelong Dodgers fan, having Lasorda present the team with their bronze medals was one of his biggest thrills.
“He said congratulations, he shook my hand, and he gave me a Dodgers hat,” Davis said. “I told him ‘Hey, you’re the greatest manager I ever met since the 1988 World Series,’ and he said ‘Thank you.’ I’ve been a Dodgers fan since 1977. I’ll die a Dodgers fan.”
Davis also said the Opening Ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was a spectacle like no other.
They got to see themselves on the Jumbotron and stand within 20 feet of U.S. Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, as part of the U.S. delegation of more than 400.
Arias celebrated the kickoff event on stage with other ambassadors, prepping in the green room with Obama, who introduced the start of the Games on July 25.
Patty Arias said Kristen’s trip was a whirlwind of activity, and that she even had a personal driver escort her from event to event.
One of those events included the showing of the movie “The Ringer,” starring Knoxville, who portrays a special needs athlete in a film that features actors with actual special needs.
Arias also passed out pins to various athletes and awarded medals to winning teams.
“It was so amazing to see that many people there for all the same reason,” Patty Arias said. “There has been stigmatism around people with special needs for so many years. But you can now feel the community coming together and a feeling of inclusion instead of exclusion.”