By Cary Shuman
Rob Neal excelled as a coach and trainer of the Bridgewell Special Olympics track and field team this past weekend, helping its athletes win gold medals at the annual competition at Harvard University.
Rob is a former Special Olympics medalist himself but he “wanted to give back to the program” that has helped him succeed in life.
“I saw there was a need for more coaches and decided to step up because I always love to help others reach their goals,” Neal told the Lynn Journal in an interview Tuesday at Bridgewell’s new headquarters in Peabody.
Rob is a 34-year-old Lynn resident who, due to his disabilities, receives day program and residential services through Bridgewell.
Bridgewell is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and helping individuals with various life challenges such as intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Since joining Bridgewell in 2008, Rob has greatly excelled in his development and life goals. He went from minimum independence to autonomously engaging in several employment and volunteer activities. He is employed at Kelly’s Roast Beef in Danvers, a position he earned by himself after receiving employment training.
When Bridgewell relaunched its Special Olympics team in 2004, Rob won gold medals in basketball and track and field.
Special Olympics Coordinator Kelli Hyland, head coach of the Bridgewell team, remembers Rob always helping out his teammates during practices and in competitions.
“When Rob was a participant and a perennial gold medalist, he would almost spend more time helping out other people than he would practicing and perfecting his own event,” said Hyland, a former basketball star at Revere High and Suffolk University.
Rob approached Hyland and asked if he could become a coach of the Bridgewell team. He struck gold this weekend as a leader of the wheelchair athletes who had first-place finishes in their events.
“Rob’s very motivational,” said Hyland, adding that he has earned Special Olympics certification in coaching.
“I attended North Shore Community College classes for first aid and CPR training for the Special Olympics,” said Rob.
He is grateful to Bridgewell for their assistance and inspiration.
“Bridgewell was the best thing that could have happened to me. The Special Olympics have been a great experience. Helping the team prepare for the Special Olympics is something that I enjoy. It gives me a great feeling when everyone is hydrated and healthy for their events and knowing that I helped them reach their goal. I try to bring out the best in each person on our team.”
Rob coaches by the philosophy that “every athlete should be treated equally – that way there is no favoritism.”
Hyland said the unpleasant weather this spring was not an obstacle. “We practice in the cold. We practice in the rain, as long as it’s not pouring.”
Hyland has inspired Rob with her leadership. “Kelli is one of the best motivational teachers I have. She was with me when I received an AADP (Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers) Award [for Self-Determination].”
Rob has reached a new milestone in his life. This week he moved from a 24-hour assisted residence to his own supportive-living apartment.
Conor Janson, program director at Rob’s former residence, said, “He was a deserving [ADDP] award recipient. He looked out for other guys at his house. We’re all really proud of Rob.”