With enthusiasm, Sasha Cruz took the podium and announced the Special Olympics oath—“let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
And with that, the 13th Annual Special Olympics Southern California Plane Pull at Long Beach Airport was underway.
Cruz, a Bancroft Middle School student and 908’ local, has competed in softball and swimming as a Special Olympics athlete since she was nine years old. It was just a few months ago that Sasha had knee surgery, which put her in a wheelchair for several weeks. Now, she’s pulling a 124,000-pound FedEx cargo plane with a rope.
Of course, with the added help of 24 other people.
A crowd of 5,000 lined the tarmac overlooking Long Beach Airport to support the effort in raising money for Special Olympics. This year, local sponsors and people from the community raised almost $190,000—the event’s highest yet—for Special Olympics, an organization dedicated to providing sports competition and activities to people with intellectual disabilities.
“It was an awesome feeling,” Cruz said of participating in the plane pull once again this year. “You’ve just got to squat, use your legs, and pull that plane!”
Teams sponsored by local businesses and organizations took turns competing against each other to see which group of 25 could pull the massive plane the fastest over a distance of 12 feet from a rope attached to the aircraft.
Cruz prepared for the plane pull with her friend and fellow Special Olympics athlete Lorna Murakami. The two were on the same softball and swim teams, which competed in the Special Olympics Summer Games at Long Beach State last June. Murakami helped Cruz get into shape for both events and threw around the softball with Cruz many times in preparation for the plane pull.
“Lorna is kind of my trainer,” Cruz said with a big smile.
Participating for different team sponsors at the 2018 Plane Pull, Lorna and Cruz were competing against each other this time. Wearing the blue colors of the American Legion, Lorna was right up front helping her team pull the FedEx aircraft with all her might, racing to make a quick time. Cruz, on the other hand, sported a black shirt with red and white lettering for local gym 9Round Fitness.
Rooting on both Cruz and Murakami was Adam Christin, their swim and softball coach in Special Olympics, who emcees the plane pull event every year.
“They are very enthusiastic and really get involved in Long Beach area Special Olympics events like the plane pull,” Christin said. “Lorna has been involved for a long time, Sasha has just been with us for the last few years. And they’ve done wonderfully in Special Olympics.”
Christin, a retired lieutenant of the California Highway Patrol, helps plan several events throughout the year to raise funds for Special Olympics. Christin was also the spearhead of bringing the plane pull event to the Long Beach Airport tarmac.
“The plane pull is an event that actually started at the Washington Dulles Airport by the Washington officers there,” Christin said. “They formulated it and I just brought it to Long Beach.”
The annual plane pull at Long Beach Airport has become a lot more than the main event. This year, there was a car show, a fun run 5K, and inclusion two-mile walk, and a functional fitness competition. There was even a special event for kids—they had the opportunity to pull a smaller, California Highway Patrol plane.
“It’s fun to bring the kids out and let them pull the CHP airplane, while mom and dad are down on the other end of the tarmac pulling the FedEx aircraft,” Christin said. “[FedEx] brings in that jet every year for us, lands it on the tarmac, and keeps it there all day long; they don’t ask us for anything. FedEx is there because it’s just the right thing to do.”
What keeps bringing people back year after year to the Plane Pull, Christin says, is the fascination behind manually moving a giant aircraft with just a rope and some low-center-of-gravity strength.
“Most people get out there and don’t think under human power that you can move that plane, so it’s a challenge to them; then afterward, they get the opportunity to brag to their friends if they win, or just that they moved a 124,000-pound plane.”
The Special Olympics Southern California Plane Pull garnered more media coverage than ever before this year, from local news stations, to global correspondents.
“I was even interviewed by a Chinese newspaper,” Christin said. “I’m just hoping each year, we can get more people out there, more awareness and understanding of Special Olympics.”
In the end, for Christin, the love of the athletes gives meaning to it all.
“It’s all worth it when we get to high-five them at opening ceremonies, or after they’ve completed the plane pull,” Christin says. “We become not just an officer, or a coach; instead, we become friends and we all have a good time together.”
And therein lies the meaning behind the Special Olympics motto, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
“It means to be yourself,” Cruz said of the credo. “Be anything you want, and have fun -- that’s what really matters.”
The next community event Christin will host for Special Olympics will be held at Cal Bowl on Feb. 2, 2019—the Saturday before the NFL Super Bowl.
“We’re calling it ‘Super Bowling Saturday,’” Christin said. “It’s going to be a small bowling tournament for fun; you come in with a few of your friends, and I assign a Special Olympics athlete to bowl with you and have fun. “Wear your favorite jerseys, eat pizza, drink soda—it’s a great way to get to know a Special Olympics athlete.”