By all accounts, Jim Balamaci, who died suddenly last week at 63, was just about the best friend Alaska's special athletes could have had. Balamaci devoted much of his life to building the Special Olympics program in Alaska, from 400 athletes to 2,000 — and with one of the world's few Special Olympics training facilities to boot.
Many of us who were here in 2001 remember the Special Olympics World Winter Games when they came to Anchorage — more than 3,000 athletes from 80 nations. Alaska was a natural to host the games, and not just for our miles of Kincaid ski trails and abundance of skating ice. We've long cherished our special athletes; thousands of Alaskans have volunteered, coached and donated time, money and goods to help the athletes break through physical and mental barriers to be in the game. Balamaci, the longtime president of Special Olympics Alaska, marshaled a lot of people to make that happen for an ever-growing number of Alaskans.
According to Harlow Robinson of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, Balamaci spoke movingly at the induction of the Winter Games of 2001 into the hall as a sports moment. He wanted his athletes not on the periphery, not separate, but part of the mainstream of sports in Alaska.
That testifies to a deep comprehension of what stirs the heart about sports, from a world-class Alaska skier to a choked-up 5-year-old who struggles to hit a baseball off a tee — to meet head-on daunting physical challenges along with the challenges of fear and doubt, to stay strong when you tremble. With Special Olympians, we see those same challenges, often in sharper relief.
Friends say the athletes loved Balamaci and he loved them back. That's hard to beat for an epitaph.
BOTTOM LINE: The good that Jim Balamaci did will last for a long time. You can chip in at www.specialolympicsalaska.org.