In 2001, Rich Antoniazzi began his involvement in Special Olympics New Jersey by enrolling his son, Tommy, into speed skating. Rich found himself becoming more interested and engaged in the sport, which, at that time, was under the direction of head coach Tim Mahoney, and became an assistant coach the following year. Fast forward to 2012, when Tim Mahoney retired from the Old Bridge Robin speed skating program and left Rich at the helm of his team of skaters.
What started as a small program has blossomed into a community wide organization. Old Bridge Township takes pride in the accomplishments of the Old Bridge Robin speed skating team, and displays congratulatory messages on its community news billboard, and awards the athletes and coaches with certificates of achievement at a Town Hall Meeting. “Old Bridge Township is extremely supportive of the speed skating program,” Rich explains. “We have a team banner that hangs up at the rink [so that] when family and friends visit the ice rink, they don’t only see the banners hanging up from the hockey team, they see the Old Bridge Robin speed skating team banner, as well.”
The Old Bridge Robins have the most robust and well-trained skating program in Special Olympics New Jersey. And so long as Rich is the head coach, there will be no compromises in training. There is no time of year too early, ice time too long or temperature too cold for the Robins to practice at their outdoor rink. Rich begins the weekly practices as early as October each year and keeps the team on the ice as long as possible at each session. Even while the other rink programs shut down for the holidays, the Robins practice.
Rich goes above and beyond to help his athletes grow, but he counts himself grateful to have the help of a few key players. The team is assisted by a local hockey players who teach skating technique and footwork at practices. The team’s Local Training Program Coordinator, Pete Pero, has been the off-ice leader. Pete began the program 25 years ago and has continued to be instrumental in furthering its growth. Thanks to Pete, the Robins utilize the township’s rink at no cost. He also provides much of the communications to the program’s families and the township. This type of support enables Rich to focus on the athletes and the on-ice training. The team approach is what allows the program to have so much success.
Skating is not one of the higher participating sports in the winter season, due in part to the challenge of finding ice time. The Robins are grateful for the rink use the township provides and encourages other programs will work within their challenges to give skating a try. Rich loves coaching the sport and hopes to see it grow. “We have athletes who, when they first joined our program, could not even stand on skates,” described Rich. “But through our coaching and the support from volunteers, we have seen these same athletes stand up on the podium at Winter Games and accept a gold medal.” He has seen the athletic and social benefits that the skating program has had on his athletes, including his own son. To him, all it takes for an athlete to get hooked is one visit to a practice. “Once they get past that first hurdle, it’s up to me and my coaches to do the rest,” he shares.
No one can estimate the impact the Rich and the Robins’ program have had on Old Bridge Township and the athletes. Because of his spirit for the sport, dedication to his athletes and strength of leadership, Special Olympics New Jersey is proud to name Rich Antoniazzi the 2015 Winter Sports Coach of the Season.