Commentary by Blake Hempstead
On Tuesday, Anaconda again showed how much they love their athletes.
Jessica Massey, a Special Olympian kayaker for Team USA, was given the parade and serenade to end them all during an afternoon ride through the streets of her hometown in celebration of a Gold Medal performance last week at the 2015 World Games last week in Los Angeles.
Massey boarded one of three fire engines with her parents, Rick and Ethel Massey, accompanied by Anaconda-Deer Lodge County police, fire chief and ambulance vehicles not to mention several cars joining in the promenade of our World Champion. It was a celebration fit for a queen.
Following the news of Massey winning the gold medal in the 200m kayak last week, I placed a call to ADLC Fire Chief RJ Tocher. Knowing him far too well, I was blunt in my request. “If we celebrate state championships with fire truck rides, what are we going to do about having a Gold Medalist coming home? You’d better bring out the whole fleet,” I told him.
And you know what Tocher did? He brought out the whole damn fleet. Many times our county government gets heat for issues beyond their control. It’s a tough job when dealing with an, at times, less-than-jovial public sector. Yes, it’s true Tocher along with other department heads and county officials signed up for the gig and the scrutiny often associated with it, but that doesn’t mean even they don’t hear the outspoken comments and feel the pain.
Yet when something like this happens, it’s time to jump all over it and get the public smiling again. Tocher and his department did just that. You always hear the bad or disappointing stories – the county raising taxes for improvements or cancelling Fourth of July fireworks due to a historically dry season in Southwest Montana, etc. – but you never hear about the good. These county departments did a fantastic job collaborating this event, they need to be applauded.
And here’s why the day meant even more than meets the eye.
From the minute Massey stood in the parking lot waiting for her ride, she felt the excitement – even if something wasn’t quite right. People gathered and caused congestion- even blocking shoppers in momentarily. Then the fleet of engines arrived, and a weight was lifted from her shoulders – a weight that should have been occupied by the feeling of a Gold Medal around her neck. However that item, that gorgeous symbol of excellence awarded to the best of the best, was lost during her trek home when she removed it going through security checks.
Her father said she was depressed and distraught about misplacing her medal, until she saw the procession of fire trucks and her friends and well wishers at the beginning of her parade. From then on, her attention was to sit high atop the ladder truck and wave during her 25 minute ride filled with horns and whistles and waves from fans.
When the parade ended at Benny Goodman Park on Anaconda’s east side, two news stations were there to greet the family. Gordon Voit of KXLF/KBZK and Rob Jesselson of ABC/FOX both interviewed the Massey family and did stories on their 10 p.m. newscasts with more scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday.
What I love most about this is not so long ago Anaconda may as well been Siberia when it came to recognizing athletic achievement in the media. But ever since Voit has been with KXLF, that hasn’t been the case. This may have been Jesselson’s first time in Anaconda – a far reach for his beat by the way – but it shows the powers that be in TV in Southwest Montana get it and love to cover every inch of their viewership. From an Anaconda resident and Copperhead fan, thank you both for taking the time to spotlight one of our own.
On Sunday night a text to one of Massey’s coaches with the Smelter City All-Stars resulted in this 8 by 5-foot banner gracing the side of her ride, and probably by today a room in the family home. Teresa Slobojan-Monaco, a special education teacher at Anaconda High, offered to pay for the banner with funds raised for her local Special Olympics team without hesitation. After the parade, firefighters, friends and family signed her vinyl banner to make it all the more special. And yes, Vermiere Graphics did a knock out job of not only printing the banner but doing do by dropping everything and getting it done in a small window of time.
One of the signers, Charlie McCurdy, was one of the men instrumental brining kayaking into Anaconda when the Special Olympics of Montana added it to their summer games lineup. McCurdy, a former shop and carpentry teacher at AHS, built a beautiful kayak during class in 2010 with hopes to use it for Anaconda High Special Olympics athletes summer games events, but soon realized that it wasn’t big enough for tandem competitions. And since his retirement from the school in 2013, other endeavors has left him unable to commit to the program full time like before. But if it weren’t for him, and now the likes of Slobojan-Monaco and Jan Torpey among many others who donate their time to these athletes, this parade wouldn’t have happened.
The parade-goers were greeting with two cakes designed for Massey to wrap up the day in style. Both were donated by AWARE and allowed that much more time for people to gather and talk with and about our World Champion.
In the end, the day was more about a celebration. It was a way to brighten the spirits of a local athlete and show just how much her accomplishments mean to us. It was about a gal who was introduced to a sport and turned a new found love through dedication and a will to exceed into being the best 200m kayaker in the world. In. The. World. Seriously, how can it get any better than that?
One act of kindness from her hometown that literally took minutes to organize helped erase an awful memory associated with her championship journey. From the firefighters and police to the journalists who put Massey on the main stage to promote her accomplishments along with those Anaconda’s who took time out of their day to help her celebrate, it’s enough to just make you tear up a bit.
And to hear about other communities not welcoming their athletes back with some sort of public event is a head-scratcher. But then again, Anaconda has always been the leader in celebrations and community giving.
Oh, and the medal and the fourth place ribbon won in the 500 meter kayak that were lost? Those are reportedly being replaced by World Games staff, just another piece of good news to wrap up with today.
Way to go Jessica! Thank you for giving us all a day to feel good about being Anacondans when lately, that hasn’t necessarily been the case.