Jackie Adams went through a tough time in high school.
The 2010 Ocean City graduate and former women’s soccer player suffered concussions in her sophomore year that caused her to miss her junior and senior seasons. She developed trouble concentrating and had seizures and headaches.
Adams was no longer allowed to play sports.
“It was really tough for me,” said Adams, 30. “I was really depressed.”
Adams quickly found a new passion.
The Ocean City resident was selected to be an assistant athletics coach for Team New Jersey at the Special Olympics USA Games, which took place June 5-12 in Orlando, Florida. Adams has coached two local athletes, Cameron DiTroia, 20, of Upper Township, and Christina Vassar, 31, of Erma.
DiTroia won gold and silver medals.
“I love it,” Adams said. “They are probably the most graceful and excited people. They work really, really hard.
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Adams coaches at the UT Challenger Athletic Program, which is a co-ed recreational program in the upper township that combines athletic and social events for people with special needs. The program includes a Special Olympics track and field team, which competes annually in regions and states.
Every two years, coaches can try to earn an invitation to coach Team New Jersey at the Special Olympics USA Games, which are held every four years. Adams applied and went on a tryout last June with fellow coaches at Lawrence High School in Mercer County.
“I was lucky. I got picked,” said Adams, who also helps coach Ocean City High School‘s women’s soccer team.
Adams started at the UT Challenger as a senior in 2009. She played one-on-one football with a special needs athlete and fell in love. Adams coaches soccer, baseball and bowling in the program. In 2012, UT Challenger became a local training program for Special Olympics, in which she coaches floor hockey and track and field.
Ocean City plans to permanently host the Special Olympics Region 8 track and field meet (Atlantic, Cape Town and Cumberland counties), Adams said. She works in the Ocean City Recreation Department.
“I was addicted to it,” Adams said. “I swore not to let anyone sit down because of injury or disability. I just wanted to help give back. They helped me through a very difficult time. It’s nice to be there for them and to see them grow and succeed.
Being a coach is special because people outside see pictures of athletes smiling after doing well, she said. Athletes smile a lot, Adams said. Coaches can see the work they do and how they overcome setbacks and adversity.
“Seeing them work as a coach and seeing that final smile as a result is only 10 times more rewarding,” Adams said. “You couldn’t be more proud of them for all they work and try.”
And she saw a lot of smiles.
DiTroia won the gold medal in the 3,000 meters in 9 minutes, 33.89 seconds. Julian Borst of the Michigan team was second (9:48.90). DiToria took silver in the 5,000m race (16:40.62), finishing about two seconds behind Borst, who won the event.
“It was really cool,” said DiTroia, who recently completed his second season with Rowan University’s cross country and track teams.
Vassar was fourth in the 800 (4:08.36) and 1500 (8:18.03) and sixth in the 4×100 relay (1:14.38). She was the first leg of the relay. She participated in the American Games in 2010 and the World Summer Games in 2011
“It could have been better,” said Vassar, who wanted to win a gold medal.
DiTroia and Vassar each praised Adams.
“Oh, she’s a great coach,” DiTroia said. “It’s just his attitude, you know?” She has this big personality that everyone wants to be around her.
Vassar added, “She’s the best.”
Maria Vassar, Christina’s mother, called Adams a “positive influence.”
“I felt really comfortable leaving my athlete, my daughter, with Jackie,” said Maria Vassar. “I never second guessed any of her choices or decisions. I never felt my daughter was unsafe or untreated.
Overall, the Team USA track and field roster consisted of 12 athletes and three coaches. The team was even treated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, just part of the fun they had in Florida. The elder Vassar said the athletes always stay in touch, saying it’s like a “friendship for life”.
“We really became a family,” Adams said. “We were laughing nonstop. Our athletes were so funny. We became friends with people from all over the country. It was never a dull moment. It was always fun. I am extremely grateful and grateful for all the support, especially from home (in Ocean City), for me and the entire team. It was really amazing.
Contact Patrick Mulranen: 609-272-7217