Coach Joe Bellini and Special Olympics athlete Will Smith have known each other for nearly 30 years. Their relationship isn’t the typical coach/athlete relationship because the connection runs so deep. Their love for sports—and each other—led them to where they are within the Special Olympics movement. Smith works for Special Olympics New York, and Bellini was recognized as a Special Olympics North America Outstanding Coach in April 2023. Here is their story.
Special Olympics North America: Why is Joe so deserving of this award?
Will Smith: Joe has always been someone who has helped so many of us on the court and off the court. To see his dedication to our team being recognized as SONA Outstanding Coach means the world to us.
SONA: What does it mean to you to know you were involved in nominating him?
WS: To be a part of this process for someone so close to not only myself, but to so many people [as well] has been a rewarding experience.
SONA: Will and Joe, can you tell me how you met, and what that first interaction was like?
WS: I met Joe when he first started at North East Special Recreation [our Special Olympics team]. He worked at a weekly sports clinic that I had signed up for through our program. He always liked to make me laugh—and still does. It was his way to help make others feel comfortable.
Joe Bellini: I work for an agency that provides recreational opportunities for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I met Will in 1995 when I was a part-time staff member and worked a gym program that Will attended as a 6-year-old. He was shy and still learning how to get along with the other kids in the program. Will was always a good kid and wanted to do his best from the beginning.
SONA: When did your coach/athlete relationship begin?
WS: Joe has coached me in floor hockey, basketball, track and field [athletics], softball, bowling and volleyball.
JB: I have coached Will since he started participating in Special Olympics. He is on my basketball team, and he is the captain of our softball and floor hockey team. Will and I have gone to Japan and China for the [Special Olympics] World Games and many state-level competitions as well.
SONA: Describe the coach/athlete relationship you have with each other.
WS: To be honest, it’s almost hard to describe because for as long as I’ve known him, I don’t look at Joe as just a coach. I look at him as my lifelong friend. Through all of my self-doubts that I’ve overcome in the past, Joe had never given up on me and always pushed me to be a great athlete on the court, but also a better leader off the court.
JB: Our relationship goes so much further than Special Olympics. He is an extension of the coaches on the court or field. He takes everything we say as coaches and gets everyone on the team to buy in. I don’t ever worry about Will and the way he represents our team. We go over strategies and different ways to get our team to win. He keeps me informed on how the team is doing and if there may be any problems with chemistry or if one of our athletes is having difficulty. He is the perfect captain for our team, and we have a great relationship.
SONA: How have you seen one another grow?
WS: Joe carries the same passion in helping other athletes as a coach the same way he does at North East as a whole. He provides many opportunities for others to bond and make new friends through our programs, trips and practices. He also makes time to help other athletes to not only engage more in the community, but he also provides assistance in everyday living as well.
JB: I have truly watched Will grow up from a child who just wanted to play sports to an accomplished athlete who has participated in world- and state-level competitions. Will, through hard work and training, has maximized his potential better than any athlete I have ever coached. He is at every practice, leads our stretching sessions and is the captain of our teams. He was shy and did not take charge when he started; now he is a leader and the face of our Special Olympics program. He works for Special Olympics New York - Hudson Valley and is a member of the statewide Athlete Leadership Council. He represents Special Olympics New York in the best possible way and is a role model for our athletes by showing them what is possible if you work hard and try your best. I could go on and on about Will and his accomplishments, but the best thing I can say is, he is one of my best friends.
Special Olympics is proud to partner with Gallagher, Official Sponsor of Special Olympics International Sport and Coach Programming. Special Olympics and Gallagher are empowering athletes with and without intellectual disabilities to face their future with confidence—on and off the playing field—through quality coaching and sports training experiences. Thanks to Gallagher’s support, Special Olympics Pennsylvania will receive a stipend to facilitate the professional development of the winner and the growth of the Coach Education Program within Special Olympics Pennsylvania.