It's a year into the global pandemic and Special Olympics Northern California coach Jack Nagle hasn't seen his athletes in person since 2020. But he's just as enthusiastic about coaching as always. He takes a lot of pride and pleasure from Special Olympics coaching, noting that, unlike youth league and school coaches, Special Olympics coaches have the joy of watching and supporting many of their athletes develop as people over a lifetime of friendship.
After being involved with many athletes throughout their lifetime, Nagle, a two-sport coach for 30 years in basketball and soccer, was named a 2020 Special Olympics North America Outstanding Coach. He says it's "a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment to think that I might have had an impact on some of the athletes."
Nagle says he was very surprised to receive the award, but those who know him were not.
"During this process last year, there were so many stories that came our way about you," Matt Bell, Director of Volunteer Services at Special Olympics Northern California, shared in the video announcement of the award. "I've never witnessed something like the kind of stories I've heard about one individual like that. It was really special."
"Our organization is built around volunteers. We wouldn't have a Program for athletes without people like you, Jack," David Solo, Special Olympics Northern California President and CEO, also added about Nagle. "You're the absolute backbone of what we do."
For Nagle, it's always been more about the team than himself. As an individual, he's quick to give everyone involved credit. He sits back on the Zoom call with Special Olympics Northern California and expresses his gratitude for receiving the award. He touches on how it's not just his award, but it's the team's award.
"While I'm kind of the face out front of the award, I really feel like it's an award for everybody on our team," Nagle says. "It really reflects on everybody in the Program."
In normal circumstances, his teams meet on Saturday mornings, starting with about 10 minutes of stretching. Then, they focus on skills--passing, dribbling, or both. In the back half of practice, they try and do a scrimmage, but sometimes the coaches get involved and have fun.
He also emphasizes physical fitness with his teams. Nagle's Team Oakland was the first Special Olympics Northern California team to pilot the Fit 5 Challenge, promoting a healthier lifestyle.
"We noticed with our athletes, just as with us other adults, it's hard to stay in shape. We are able to work hard on conditioning once a week, and I've always told the athletes 'it's up to you to do the other six days of the week,'" Nagle says about why they started the Fit 5 program. "We also have a lot of athletes because of family situations or whatever their eating habits aren't the best."
This dual focus on both sports skills and healthy lifestyles sums up Nagle's approach to coaching.
"I guess as coaches, we try to emphasize two things; one that you'll compete as well as you practice. Practice well. Practice smart," Nagle says. "The second one, of course, is just have fun. And those two philosophies just build on each other."
The impact of that philosophy transcends beyond Special Olympics, though. Nagle and his coaches help athletes reach their goals outside of the organization. The coaching staff helped an athlete find more skilled coaches who could help take his natural basketball talent to the next level.
"By having Jack in his life, Jordan blossomed in basketball and was able to go to the Bahamas in 2019 and play in an AAU tournament," a parent says about Nagle's leadership. "Jack donated to this event. Not only is Jack on the court, but he is an off-the-court Coach."
Nagle says it's a "two-way street" for supporting athletes outside of Special Olympics.
"Hopefully, we can impart some ideas about being good citizens and living well beyond basketball," Nagle says about the importance of the support role. "These athletes are our friends, and we spend a lot of time with them each week, and it's just fun for us to do things with them beyond the basketball court or soccer pitch."
So, when California implemented some of the nation's strictest COVID-19 protocols, he worked to remain calm and keep a positive attitude, setting the tone for all who look to him as a leader.
"The important thing for all of us is to try and stay positive and we try and convey that message as a group and to individual athletes," Nagle says about the shutdown a year ago.
Throughout the years, Nagle has impacted countless athletes, their families and the communities in which he coaches. He wants them all to succeed in sports and life. And he's granted the unique privilege of seeing individuals grow throughout their lives. Each of those transformations is meaningful to him, but there's perhaps one lifelong connection that means the most.
His daughter and long-time Special Olympics athlete Jeannie.
"Being a part of the Special Olympics organization was the best thing that I've ever done," Jeannie says. "I started at eight years old, and I kept going; I never gave up because I have a special person that pushed me through it and my role model in life. And that's my dad. I'm very lucky to have him. He is everything to me; he means the whole entire world to me. He's just a special person that I will love for always."