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Commonwealth Games at Liberty University kindle Olympic spirit in amateur athletes

After a downsized 2020, participants returned to Liberty University with a spirit of excitement for this year’s Commonwealth Games.

As a parade of hundreds of amateur athletes poured into Williams Stadium to participate in Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies for the 32nd annual Virginia Commonwealth Games’ Main Games Weekend at Liberty University, a healthy spirit of competition returned to campus after COVID-19 severely scaled back the state’s largest multi-sport festival in 2020.

The participants were thrilled to compete in Liberty’s state-of-the-art facilities, including the Liberty Baseball Stadium, Liberty Softball Stadium, and the new Liberty Arena, where the championship games of the basketball tournaments were staged.

Additionally over the weekend, athletes utilized Liberty’s venues to showcase their skills in field archery, beach volleyball, disc golf, tennis at the Liberty Tennis Complex, track & field on the Matthes-Hopkins Track Complex, and ultimate Frisbee at the Liberty Mountain Intramural Complex, as well as three disciplines of shooting sports at the Liberty Mountain Gun Club.

Liberty has served as the title sponsor for the Commonwealth Games since 2017.

“We had a successful weekend last weekend launching our new All-Star Softball and All-Star Baseball, racquetball and pickleball,” Virginia Amateur Sports President Dan Foutz said. “Traditionally, for 32 years, basketball’s the No. 1 sport for us in Virginia, and we do have kids from all over the state in basketball.”

The Liberty Indoor Practice Facility tailgate offered food and festivities prior to the beginning of the Commonwealth Games.

Prior to the Opening Ceremonies, participants enjoyed a tailgate party complete with food, festivities, inflatables, and sports-themed games inside the Liberty Indoor Football Practice Facility.

Liberty alumna and newly crowned Miss Virginia Tatum Sheppard (’20) kicked off the Opening Ceremonies by singing the national anthem before 24-year veteran Lynchburg Police Department Chief Ryan Zuidema, also in his 11th year as a Liberty adjunct professor, joined Lynchburg Fire Department Chief Greg Wormser and Centra Dr. Preyasha Tuladhar to light the Olympic cauldron in a joint tribute to area first responders.

Antoine Craig, a visually impaired track and field athlete who is a Team USA alternate for the Aug. 24-Sept. 5 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, carried the torch into the stadium and served as this year’s Olympic speaker. Craig filled in for two-time Olympic gold medalist Francena McCorory, who lit the cauldron at last summer’s Games but missed this weekend’s festivities due to a death in the family.

Liberty alumna and newly crowned Miss Virginia Tatum Sheppard (’20) kicked off Opening Ceremonies on Friday night by singing the national anthem.

Craig, 39, who moved to Virginia in 2010 after losing his vision due to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University and became the first in his family to graduate from college, with a degree in psychology, in 2016. He took up running at the advice of a fellow student and made his first U.S. Paralympic team in 2019 when he competed in the Paralympic Pan Am Games.

“I am determined, I am resilient,” Craig told the athletes on hand for his Olympic speech. “All of you are here today because you all have traversed your own obstacles and circumstances. Nobody knows what you had to get through to get here, nobody. Someone may know who you are, but they don’t know what you are. All of you are brave, all of you are strong, all of you are resilient, all of you are survivors. These last two years have been tough on all of us, but yet you guys are still here today.”

Craig is now working on his master’s in rehabilitation and mental health counseling at VCU and aspires to become a sports psychologist.

“About a year ago, I stopped doing it for myself and I really started doing it for other people,” he said of his training and competing. “That’s what really moves me, is that I know I can help other people. I have collected so many friends over the last year, a bunch of people I help with training and various things and I really like that part of it, the mental part.”

The Commonwealth youth basketball tournament was played on Liberty’s LaHaye Basketball Courts.

Craig stayed in Lynchburg over the weekend so that he could continue to encourage athletes and even compete on the track on Sunday, winning the 35-39 age bracket of both the 100- and 200-meter dash events in 11.9 and 30.0 seconds, respectively, running alongside spotter Jayson Ward.

“We’re training for the 400 at the World Championships in Oregon next year,” said Craig, who won a silver medal at the Paralympic Trials in Minnesota in June.

After winning his two gold medals, Craig revisited Jaylin Jones and his fifth-grade basketball team from Harrisonburg, Va., at the LaHaye Recreation & Fitness Center basketball courts where they were playing a tournament game.

“Jaylin and his mother met him briefly after the Opening Ceremonies and Antoine wanted to finish his conversation with him and give his team a pep talk,” Foutz said. “Jaylin has glaucoma and is visually impaired and when Antoine gave Jaylin one of his medals, it was an emotional moment for everyone.”

Antoine Craig (center) stands with his guide, Jayson Ward (left), and Dan Foutz, president of Virginia Amateur Sports, which directs the Commonwealth Games, after Craig won two gold medals on Sunday.

The Commonwealth Games will continue with equestrian events at the Liberty Equestrian Center on Saturday followed by indoor soccer at the Thomas Indoor Soccer Center from Aug. 6-8, and indoor track and field events at the Liberty Indoor Track Complex from Dec. 18-19.