Sports

Jim Balamaci, steadfast advocate for Alaska’s Special Olympians, dies at age 63

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 2
  • Published February 1

Jim Balamaci, the longtime president of Special Olympics Alaska, died Thursday at age 63. (Photo provided by Alaska Special Olympics)

A celebration of life will be held Sunday, March 11, at 4 p.m. at the Alaska Airlines Center. Everyone is welcome.

Jim Balamaci, whose passion for Special Olympics spanned four decades during which the World Winter Games came to Anchorage and one of the world's only training centers for developmentally disabled athletes was built in Mountain View, died Thursday.

Balamaci, a Special Olympics volunteer since 1979 and the president of Alaska Special Olympics since 1996, was 63.

His death stunned Alaska's Special Olympics community, which includes more than 2,000 athletes — all of whom Balamaci seemed to know by first name.

"Jim always had a couple athletes in tow," said Paul Landes, a Special Olympics board member for more than 20 years. "The athletes all responded to Jim. They just loved Jim."

And Balamaci loved them back, Landes said: "His whole life was Special Olympics."

Balamaci started as a Special Olympics volunteer in Kodiak. He came to Anchorage in the 1990s and under his steadfast commitment, the Alaska organization enjoyed huge growth.

When Balamaci became the organization's president, Landes said, there were 400 athletes statewide and facilities were located in a donated house on Elmendorf Air Force Base. The living room was the conference room, two small bedrooms served as offices and storage was in the crawl space.

Today, there are more than 2,000 athletes statewide and a $7 million, 28,000-square-foot training facility in Mountain View that Landes said is one of only a few of its type worldwide. It's equipped with a basketball court, running track, an industrial-sized kitchen to help clients learn to cook nutritiously, offices and more.

"He reached out to every community, to community leaders, to families, to donors," Landes said. "He believed there were still hundreds more athletes in Alaska we had yet to reach. It's always been his goal to grow the program."

That remained his goal till the day he died. According to a Special Olympics press release, Balamaci's most recent pursuit was the establishment of an Aging Unified Athlete Program for athletes and their families.

One of Balamaci's crowning achievements came in 2001 when the World Winter Games came to Anchorage. The biggest sports event ever held in Alaska, the weeklong competition showcased nearly 3,000 athletes from 80 countries.

Two years ago, the World Winter Games was honored as one of the state's top sports moments by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Balamaci delivered an emotional speech.

"He believed Special Olympics should be part of the sports conversation — part of the mainstream," Hall of Fame president Harlow Robinson said.

Balamaci served as a board member for the Hall of Fame and was integral in that organization's formation, Robinson said.

"If I had one word to describe him, it would be selfless," Robinson said. "When we had a budget of $30, he was willing to jump on board to help get us off the ground and achieve our dreams. He provided so much with his knowledge and support."

Robinson said he spoke nearly every day with Balamaci, who provided a never-ending supply of ideas and advice.

"I can't even process that Jim's gone," he said. "I spoke with him yesterday afternoon."

The cause of death was not immediately known, Landes said. Nicole Egan, a longtime member of the Special Olympics staff, has been named the organization's interim president, he said.

Details on memorial services will be announced later. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Balamaci's honor at specialolympicsalaska.org.