Who the Heck is Ralph Gemmil

| Written By John Schech |

Before I met Ralph, my perception of the Special Olympics was always about school-age special needs kids performing in a Summer Olympics type of setting. So, when Ralph sauntered onboard my boat for the Special Olympics Fishing Tournament out of Goose Harbor, I thought to myself, “Hmm… This guy looks almost as old as me. What’s he doing in the Special Olympics?” When I looked down the pier at all the athletes, I noticed that many of them were older than I expected. Well, as it turns out, a Special Olympics Athlete just doesn’t hang up the cleats and walk off the field into the sunset when they get older. The need for competition still burns in them. They are not going to just sit on the couch.

I started thinking about all this recently and wondered, “Other than fishing, the Super Plunge, and the Ravens games, what do I really know about Ralph’s life before I met him?” I sent a text to Ralph’s mother Debbie and asked her how long Ralph had been involved in the Special Olympics. What was his history? She told me he is 48 now and he started when he was 7 years old. I asked her to send me a few photos of his younger years. Well, boy did she send me some photos. As I went through them, I became more and more impressed. Ralph has had quite a storied career in the Special Olympics.

As I mentioned earlier, Ralph started competing at the age of 7. In 1983, when he was 10 years old, he was poster child for the Special Olympics of Maryland. His duties included many appearances at sporting and political events. You can see the one photo of Ralph next to Roy Rogers behind the Oriole dugout. Ralph and Roy each threw out the first pitch at the Oriole game that night to Tippy Martinez. That is awesome! Also, check out the photo of Ralph and Governor Harry Hughes.

In the next photo, you can see Ralph participating in the International Special Olympics at Minneapolis-Saint Paul in 1991. Ralph also went to the USA Games and is presently runner up for this year’s USA games in Florida for golf.

Ralph attended Camp Shriver several times. Camp Shriver was where the Special Olympics got its start back in 1962. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, President John Kennedy’s sister, started this camp to give children with intellectual disabilities a place to go “…to have fun … just like every other kid.” The Camp was held at her house in Potomac, Md. Eunice was the one that brought attention to the plight of the intellectually disadvantaged folks in the world. Her sister, Rosemary, was born with an Intellectual Disability (ID), and Eunice didn’t like how she was treated. It was not pleasant for people with ID before Eunice got involved. Surprisingly, even the president’s sister was treated poorly before Eunice said “Enough”. From what I have read and what Debbie told me, she wasn’t just a figurehead for this movement. She got involved and participated with the kids in the events. As you can see, Ralph got cozy with Arnold Schrwarzenegger and Maria Shriver at one of the camps. Actually, he looks a little too cozy with Maria. I could go on and on about Eunice’s contributions to the Special Olympics. She did change the world for the better. Perhaps the most mind-blowing part of her story was she accomplished all this work in the middle of losing her two brothers, John and Bobby, to assassins. She was a strong, focused woman.

As Ralph got older, his need for competition did not go away. Ralph regularly golfs, plays baseball, bowls, sails, snow skis, plays soccer, and rides horses. He is also in dancing and acting groups. Most of these events are under the umbrella of the Special Olympics. The athletes aren’t abandoned after they become adults. If you follow Ralph and Debbie on Facebook, you will find yourself hard pressed to keep up with those two. They do everything together and it is a heart-warming relationship.

Fast forward to current times. What has Ralph done lately? Oh, not much. He only won Plunger of the Year in 2021! He dressed up as Gene Simmons of Kiss and did a video and a Plunge. And he showed some pretty good guitar theatrics while doing it. He’s such a ham. Thank God the guitar wasn’t plugged in.

After digesting all this, I called Debbie to chat and figure out how to put this in perspective. What has the Special Olympics meant to her and Ralph? She simply said, “It saved us.” Ralph was born in a time when special needs folks were not really accepted in society. The term for them was “retarded” before Eunice Shriver Kennedy changed all that. It was not a derogatory term when it was coined, but it certainly became one. It ripped Debbie’s guts out when Ralph was ridiculed by others earlier in his life. Ralph is aware he has ID and he backs away when he is uncomfortable. The Special Olympics has given him a place to excel, relax, and just be one of the kids. There is still a long way to go for total acceptance of ID people in society, but we are getting there. For now, the Special Olympics provides a safe place for so many people like Ralph and Debbie. In the early days of hanging out with Ralph, I didn’t know how to act. I wasn’t sure which conversations and activities were on the table and which were not. I didn’t want to say anything wrong. I’ve found that everything is on the table, and I should treat Ralph as I treat everyone else. One of the Special Olympics Mantras is “Inclusion”. Well, if you have seen our videos, Ralph has certainly been included. He is one of the guys. The best parts of the videos are when Ralph ad libs his parts. We let Ralph be Ralph.

Ralph has benefitted from the contributions to the Special Olympics. He has also raised a lot of money over the years. By the end of this year’s Super Plunge, Ralph and I will have raised around $48,000.00. A big THANK YOU goes out to all of you that have contributed over the years. That will pay for many events for people of Ralph’s vintage and more so for the younger generation of athletes. It has been a blessing for me to have met Ralph and Debbie.