A 2,018-member choir will sing during the Special Olympics opening ceremony in Seattle, in front of 4,000 athletes and coaches, 10,000 of their family members and friends — and the entire country.
One thing’s for sure: You’re going to cry.
At some point during the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics USA Games on July 1, you will feel a lump rise in your throat and stay there, while your eyes get blurry with tears.
It is sure to happen when a 2,018-member choir sings for 4,000 athletes and coaches, 10,000 of their family members and friends — and the entire country.
The choir’s volunteer director, Rafe Wadleigh, would bet money on it.
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“That’s something that drew me to choral music in the first place,” Wadleigh said the other day. “It’s the most intimate of the performing arts.
“And there is something so great about the cause, everybody from the athletes to their families. It’s emotionally charged.”
The choir was formed when Special Olympics put out a call to Seattle-area community choirs— and anyone interested in singing the six-day event into action.
Three hundred people showed up for the first rehearsal. On Saturday, June 23, twice that many filled the Federal Way Performing Arts and Events Center. And more continue to sign on toward the goal of 2,018 voices.
“It’s just a bicycle,” Wadleigh said of handling a group this large. “This one is just a real big bicycle. It still steers and pedals the same.”
He started rehearsal by walking onto the stage with his guitar, playing the opening notes of “Lean on Me.” The room picked it right up from there. No prompting. No sheet music.
“Six hundred strangers singing in harmony,” Wadleigh said later. “It really feeds my soul.”
The singers separated themselves into sections, according to range — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — and dug into “River Flowin’ in My Soul,” written by Faya Touré, the first African-American female judge in Alabama. (“There’s a river flowin’ in my soul, here’s a river flowin’ in my soul. And it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul.”)
The choir will be performing with singer Allen Stone, a native of Chewelah, Stevens County, who started singing at age 3 in his father’s church. He’s since become an accomplished blues and R&B performer.
Both Stone and Wadleigh wrote songs specifically for the Special Olympics opening ceremony. Stone’s song, “Warriors” (arranged by Wadleigh), contains this lyric: “Walk tall like warriors. Head high.”
Wadleigh’s song, “My Heart is on Fire!,” was written from the perspective of an athlete’s parent. (“Today I felt my heart catch fire, A single spark set it to glow. Tired and smiling in my arms, so much further than you thought you’d go.”)
It will feature a soloist, Marlana VanHoose, 23, who is blind, has a mild case of cerebral palsy “and is a killer soul singer,” Wadleigh said.
“The cool thing about the choir is that it is 100 percent in the spirit of the Games,” he said. “We’re breaking barriers of inclusion and exclusion. It’s a community choir. Sign up and come sing. Young folks, old folks, parents.
“You always have a little engine of people who are very, very good — and 60 percent of the people are good at following along.”
Wadleigh, 44, is the choir director at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma. Before that, he did the same job at Holy Names Academy in Seattle for 11 years.
He also plays guitar in Seattle bands, including for singer-songwriter Star Anna.
It was at a Star Anna performance at the Neptune Theatre when he was approached by producer Michael McMorrow, who is serving as entertainment adviser and consultant for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.
Would Wadleigh consider directing a 2,000-member choir?
“That would be amazing,” Wadleigh told McMorrow. And then he forgot all about it.
A few months later, McMorrow called him: “Hey, remember the choir you said you would direct? Are you in?”
“This is a labor of love,” Wadleigh said. “I’m not some fancy choral guy. I’m just somebody who is pretty good at getting the party started. Anybody else might overthink it. I’m just willing to let it go and see what we get.”
So far, he’s gotten some 37 regional choirs to bring members, including Trudy Tankus, 88, who came with the Seattle Shores Chorus. She is a former foster mother, and wanted to do something to honor children with challenges.
Matthew Lombard isn’t a member of any choir; he drove down from Everett on his own to be part of the ceremony.
A radiologist at Kaiser Permanente — one of the sponsors of the Games — Lombard, 56, saw a notice about the choir at work.
“I thought I’d be a good volunteer,” he said. “I love music. Music helps my patients deal with pain and loss.”
Lombard, who is from Alabama, was particularly moved by “River Flowin’ in My Soul.”
“When I was young I’d see cross burnings, and my mom would cry, and I understood that was wrong,” he said. “Music drives our culture for change.”
There’s something more: Lombard’s nephew, Carter Nagy, 15, has Down syndrome, and is a competitive swimmer in Detroit. He also has patients with challenges similar to the athletes competing in Special Olympics.
“They are my favorites,” he said of those patients. “The smallest things make them happy. They can teach the world about goodness.
“I am with all of them in their journey,” Lombard continued. “As they train for their Olympic journey, I am with them in spirit and song.”
Special Olympics couldn’t come at a better time, he said.
“The world is so torn apart,” he said. “To see them challenge themselves, to be so happy. It shows the world what happiness really means.”
So happy that it will probably make you cry.