Special Olympics coach gives her all to her athletes

Becky O’Grady is the reigning Coach of the Year for Special Olympics Georgia and was recently a finalist for the Special Olympics of North America’s Coach of the Year award, but her focus is on her athletes, not her accolades.

“It’s so humbling, of course, to have an athlete think enough of you to nominate you for an award,” said O’Grady, 28. “When I first found out I cried for about two hours straight. For myself and all the other coaches, that’s one of the biggest honors ever. I’m not sure what could top that for me. But everything I and the other coaches do is 100 percent for the athletes. They’re so easy to love and serve – it’s a privilege to be their coach.”

O’Grady volunteers on the Special Olympics Georgia medical team, and she is a track coach for Special K’s, a Special Olympics program based in Johns Creek. Though she began with both organizations in 2015, her link to Special K’s, specifically, began years prior.

“I reached out to Chris Bray, the coordinator for Special K’s, and we realized he’d coached my older sister, Jessy, years before,” said O’Grady.

Volunteering with the special needs community has been a way of life for O’Grady since childhood. Jessy, who is 30 now, has Down syndrome. When Jessy would participate in Special Olympics sports, O’Grady, her younger two brothers, and her parents were all on the field, volunteering and coaching.

“My family moved all around, but the consistency was always the six of us,” said O’Grady. “We’re in it together and it all comes back to family. We have each other’s backs and we’re excited to support one another. Our parents pushed us to be our very best and we took care of one another. We always knew what matters most. We’re a unit.”

Even now when O’Grady coaches at, or coordinates an event, her parents and siblings volunteer.

“Growing up with Jessy, the special needs community has always been a part of our world,” said O’Grady. “This population has never been foreign to me. I approach each athlete like a friend. They’re my buddies, they make me laugh, we talk about our lives. I look forward to seeing them every week.”

O’Grady registers the team for multiple 5Ks throughout the year. She leads training runs on Sunday and Tuesday evenings.

About a year ago, O’Grady, a nurse practitioner in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, needed a break from work.

“After seeing all I saw with so many COVID patients, I was in a horrible place,” said O’Grady. “I needed time off to get my head straight.”

She mentioned her struggle to Bray and within 24 hours O’Grady received videos from the athletes saying how much they love her, posters, gifts in the mails, a sign in her front yard. One athlete made a surprise visit at her front door with a big teddy bear in tow.

“You show up, serve, and do what you can as a coach to make it fun, you challenge them to get outside their comfort zone, but you have no idea the impact you’re making,” said O’Grady. “It’s wild because I used to say the same about the coaches and volunteers who worked with my sister. I was amazed by what they learned about her and how they navigated around what she needed. Now that my athletes are saying those things about me, it’s come full circle. It’s the most humbling experience of my life.”

One of the athletes singing “Coach Becky’s” praises is Arjun Sharma, 21, along with his father, Rupesh Sharma.

“Coach Becky is outstanding to all the athletes,” said Rupesh. “She makes them feel so welcome and motivated. She’s playful and goofy. She promises to dress up for races if enough athletes register. She’s dressed like a turkey, like a leprechaun. She follows through and makes it fun. She puts her heart and soul into making sure all the athletes feel loved and excited and it’s been such a blessing to us.”

Arjun, who has autism, has ran many 5Ks and 10Ks with O’Grady. Thanks to her coaching, he has also completed 12 half marathons.

“My best time was 1 hour and 58 minutes in the Turkey Trot,” said Arjun.

When asked what makes O’Grady such a good coach, Arjun gets right to the point.

“She is a good runner, she makes me happy, and she is very nice. We cheer each other on.”

If you would like to learn more about Special K’s, visit specialksgeorgia.weebly.com/