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In his own words: Phil Smith represents NC in the 2019 World Games Final Leg

How did it feel to be selected to be a part of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games Final Leg in Abu Dhabi?

I was very honored and humbled to have been selected for this once in a lifetime experience. This opportunity is one I will cherish forever!

The Final Leg requires a good amount of physical activity. How did you train or prepare for it? 

I began a more strenuous training schedule in August 2018, which involved me running 3-5 times a week for 3-5 miles each time. On the off days, I did strength training in the gym concentrating more on my legs and core.

This was your first time traveling out of the country. What was that like?

It was very eye opening, long flights but not bad. I actually can’t wait to do it again. I would love to take my family to Abu Dhabi one day and know they would love it.

Once you got to Abu Dhabi, what happened? Walk us through the events and your thoughts on that first night.  

Well, I left Raleigh the night of Thursday, February 28. I finally landed in Abu Dhabi at 1 a.m. on Sunday, March 2. I was greeted at the airport by members of the logistics team and escorted to a shuttle where I stored my luggage but had to wait another hour for other Final Leg members to arrive.

During the shuttle ride, I sat back and observed my new surroundings: the beautiful sights, the lights, the palm trees, the desert sand and, of course, the heat! I arrived at the hotel about 3 a.m., where I met my new roommate and now friend, athlete and Global Messenger Paul Asaro from New York.

You were partnered with Paul during the Final Leg. Can you tell us about him and your relationship throughout the experience?

Paul Asaro lives in upstate New York and is an amazing, kind-hearted, determined, hardworking young man, who adores and loves his wife and family. He is a great speaker. I loved hearing him talk about Special Olympics, and how grateful he is for the opportunities he has received and the unforgettable experiences Special Olympics has brought to his life.

We became friends very quickly. We enjoyed sitting on the bus and eating our meals together, while talking about our families, Special Olympics, and police and fire, which he loves as he is a volunteer firefighter back home. We plan to stay in touch as much as we can and I hope to travel to New York soon to visit him and his family. He will be a lifetime friend and an inspiration always.

What about your relationship with the whole group throughout the experience? From the first night to the last.

My group, route one, became a tight-knit group from day one. We worked alongside the Special Olympics athletes in our group to make sure everyone had everything they needed and we assisted them with their speeches. Mostly though, the athletes were our inspiration and our leaders day in and out.

What was your favorite stop during the Final Leg? Why?

My favorite stop was our arrival in Fujairah. Paul and I were selected to present the Flame of Hope to Saeed Al Samahl, Director General and the Prince of the Government of Fujairah. It was such an amazing honor for Paul and I together and when we walked into the hotel we received a hero’s welcome with red carpet, a local tribe band playing and the Prince’s daughters placed rose leis around our necks.

After pictures were taken, Paul and I were invited to sit down in the lobby with the Prince to talk about our countries, our families, what my occupation was, and how we liked their country so far. I gave them Chapel Hill Police Department patches and Special Olympics 50th anniversary coins, which they were extremely happy and thankful to receive. After meeting their children and families, we sat there in awe of the hospitality we were given and being treated like royalty. We both were extremely happy and enjoying every minute of it!

How would you describe your experience of being a part of the Final Leg?

All I can really say is that it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience for me! Just being with the athletes every day, seeing the smiles on their faces throughout the Final Leg and hearing their life stories makes this all worthwhile. They are why we do this.

Okay, now the big moment: Opening Ceremony. Describe the lead up to that event for you. What was it like being part of such a monumental moment?

Everyday leading up to the Opening Ceremony you could feel the excitement and the momentum building. Every Emirate we visited went out of their way to make this an unforgettable experience for us. We were able to go to the Olympic Village before the Opening Ceremony, where we mingled with the athletes and their families, gave them patches, pins and coins, and took pictures with them. The smiles on their faces were by far the best part for me. I also was able to meet Bryan Henry, who is a super star SONC athlete and swimmer competing with Special Olympics USA!

And of course, the lighting of the cauldron! Tell us about it from your perspective.

The night before the Opening Ceremony, our group did a rehearsal of our part during the lighting of the cauldron. You could just feel the excitement then inside the stadium. The night of the Opening Ceremony was just so amazing; it was almost like your heart beating out of your chest. You could hear and feel all the excitement in the air and wherever we went, we were given a hero’s welcome.

When the athletes were being introduced, you could just feel the overwhelming excitement building and the electricity in the stadium. There were huge smiles and happy tears on the athletes’ faces. I just stood there in awe of the whole event and counted my blessing I was selected as a law enforcement officer to represent North Carolina.

Once the Flame of Hope arrived inside the stadium, we took our spots around the stage and as the lit torch ran past us we saluted. I had chills and have chills now just thinking about it. It’s very hard to exactly put into words the feelings and emotions I had at that time. I was smiling from ear to ear and could see just how much this means to all the athletes from around the world. It was so special to witness.

How did it feel coming home to the states? Will you keep in touch with any of your fellow Guardians of the Flame?

Yes, I will keep in touch with my group and especially Paul, who I’ve already texted back and forth with several times since we left Abu Dhabi. I was ready to come home, as I missed my family very much. I also just wanted to share my experience with them and my friends, and really just anybody I could tell. It’s something I will keep with me forever.

Any final thoughts to share about the Final Leg?

I would like to thank Special Olympics North Carolina and Keith Fishburne, SONC President/CEO, for selecting me for this once in a lifetime opportunity that I will always treasure and remember forever! It was an honor to be a part of such an extraordinary worldwide event that was held in an incredibly beautiful country.

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