Sanford trainer assists at Special Olympics World Games

North Dakota Hall of Fame trainer Jon Darling saw Abu Dhabi from the sidelines

Sanford trainer assists at Special Olympics World Games

As a Sanford Health athletic trainer with decades in the profession, Jon Darling always has his heart in the right place.

Earlier this year, the right place for Darling’s heart was the United Arab Emirates on behalf of Special Olympics USA and our Olympians’ efforts at the 2019 World Games.

Darling’s association with Special Olympics in North Dakota began in 2000. A little less than 20 years later, this recently enshrined member of his state’s athletic trainer hall of fame was flying to Abu Dhabi as part of the medical team caring for more than 200 athletes.

He anticipated the opportunity of a lifetime. He came home feeling his association with the Olympics exceeded his expectations. Yes, he and the rest of the staff were busy. And yet, the daily arrival of rewarding and memorable experiences far eclipsed the long days.

Great sports

“The World Games were fantastic,” Darling said. “It was so much fun. Athletes do their best, and when they’re done competing, they hug each other and they take pictures. And then to see their families there supporting them. Just incredible stuff.”

Darling says he’s lucky he landed the Team USA gig. Others say it is a well-aimed honor in recognition of knowledge and devotion to the profession. His work as a preceptor at North Dakota State — that is, working with students who are going to make a career of athletic training — confirms this.

“Every student review I’ve ever seen on Jon has been very favorable,” said Brad Reed, the athletic training manager for Sanford Heath in Fargo. “They like his teaching, and they like his style — he makes them feel comfortable, and he makes them want to continue on in athletic training. He’s a very big advocate for athletic training and for us.”

Games to remember

For the first time, The World Games were held in the Middle East, with the largest number of competitors ever. The World Games included 7,500 Olympians representing more than 190 countries, as well as 2,500 coaches and 20,000 volunteers assisting in 24 sports.

“Once the Games began, we tried to cover as many sports and venues as we could,” Darling said. “One athletic trainer and one doctor stayed up in Dubai, and two athletic trainers and two doctors were in Abu Dhabi. They kept us very busy.”

First-time experiences were part of every day for Darling. That goes for the World Games themselves as well as the trip to the United Arab Emirates.

A police escort accompanied the Olympians and the staff on a trip from the hotel to JFK International airport. It was rush hour in New York, but there wasn’t another car on the freeway while the Olympic buses were making their way down the road. “A once in a lifetime experience, I would say,” Darling wrote in his journal of that uncrowded drive.

Special activities

And then came a flight to Abu Dhabi and daily highlights brought on by the World Games and its participants.

Darling and the team took pictures with ESPN’s Julie Foudy, a former soccer star from the U.S. who is now a reporter. In addition, the U.S. team met second lady Karen Pence and Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera. Darling witnessed opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, visited the U.S. Embassy, took a photo with Surgeon General Jerome Adams and was up close at the games for countless competitions in between.

“The biggest thing I bring back from my personal highlight reel is being part of the medical team and being part of something so special,” Darling said. “To be able to watch all those athletes compete at the World Games. Some got medals and others didn’t, but everyone had a great time over there.”

Special passion

About two years ago, Kathy Meagher, president of Special Olympics North Dakota, sent Darling an application to be part of the staff and encouraged him to fill it out. He complied but suspected that was the last he’d hear of it.

Instead he got a call, then an interview and ultimately the opportunity to be part of the staff on loan from Sanford Health. His passion for his profession was at the root of it. It connected directly, however, to a great capacity to care about others.

“I enjoy going to work every day,” he said. “I enjoy the people I work with and the school I’ve been at for 19 years. The people I’ve met and the support I’ve had over the years has been fantastic. Life is short, I tell people, and I’m not out to make a million dollars. I really love what I do every day. I love going to work.”

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