A typical weekend practice for Special Olympics Alaska athletes had a noticeable absence on Saturday: Jim Balamaci, the organization's president and CEO who died this week at age 63.

“It's been a couple of tough sad days with his passing, but his legacy is in our hearts,” said athlete Ayesha Abdul-Jillil.

Balamaci was a champion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After his sudden death on Thursday, staff are helping athletes cope.

“Having them be able to come here and play floor hockey with their partners, being able to see their teammates is going to really help with the grievance process and all of the memories and how important he was to all of us,” said Sarah Arts, the group's sports and program director.

Every athlete has a favorite memory of how Balamaci impacted their lives.

“He was like a second father to me,” said Faith Renwick.

Faith and her husband Richard have been involved in Special Olympics for almost four decades. They first met Jim when he was a volunteer in Kodiak.

“The one year I went to Kodiak, the first year track and field, the pentathlon, that's what I remember of him,” said Richard. “I'm going to miss him so much; he's like a big brother to me.”

Balamaci is perhaps best known for his presence at the Polar Plunge, one of Special Olympics Alaska's biggest fundraisers. In Anchorage, participants jump into Goose Lake in the middle of winter.

“I'll never forget that fur hat he always wore. I hope we keep that hat as our legacy at the Polar Plunge,” said Abdul-Jillil.

Then there was his signature catch phrase, “Oh yeah!” shouted during many opening and closing ceremonies over the years.

Staff say the upcoming winter games won’t be the same without him.

“There's a hole in the community now that may never be filled but by providing opportunities for our athletes to train and compete we're going to get there. We'll get through it as a family and that's what Jim would want,” Arts said.

Athletes said they’ll do their best to get even more people interested in Special Olympics, and spread Balamaci’s message of including all people regardless of their abilities.

“Jim, this is for you this year,” Richard said, as he looked toward the sky. “We'll try to get the gold in field hockey.”

“Rest in peace, we love and miss you, oh yeah,” Abdul-Jillil said.

Balamaci’s memorial will be Sunday, March 11 at the Alaska Airlines Center at 4 p.m. Staff say that coincides with the closing ceremonies of Alaska's winter games, so athletes from around the state will be able to attend.

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