“I want to thank all of the other inductees for what you did tonight. You all went over the time limit. I timed ya!” Bill Semmens joked as he held up a stopwatch to laughter in the crowd. But for the actual punchline, Semmens reached under the podium and pulled out a large three-ring binder and lifted it up for the crowd to see. “Therefore, I brought my speech!”
The audience for the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony enjoyed the bit, but also seemed unsurprised by it. After all, it’s this kind of humor that has helped make Semmens a popular figure in the Janesville sports community, and now a Hall of Famer upon his induction on May 19 at the Janesville Country Club.
The combination of humor and timekeeping precision that helped Semmens become a legendary coach of Janesville Craig High’s boys track and field team over 27 seasons has also helped him become a fixture in track and field for Special Olympics Wisconsin.
In the 1980’s, one of Semmens’ former Craig athletes started coaching for Janesville Special Olympics. He came to his former coach to ask if he could bring his athletes to the high school for training. Semmens obliged and before he knew it, he was coaching track for Special Olympics Wisconsin.
“Part of the Special Olympics model is ‘If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ I love this idea of rising to the challenge.” – Bill Semmens
Now over 30 years later, Semmens has helped to evolve the Special Olympics Wisconsin’s athletics program by formalizing processes and bringing in certified starters to volunteer at the event. “I have right now 20 track people who come up to work the (Summer Games) track,” Semmens said.
The level of professionalism and high expectations Semmens brings to the track have gone beyond Wisconsin too. He’s helped Special Olympics agencies as far off as Southern Florida learn how to make their track meets as well organized and timed as any high school or college track meet. He’s also proud of the fact that three of the 21 track officials for the 2018 USA Games in Seattle will be from Special Olympics Wisconsin, himself included. He’s been a track official for every Special Olympics USA Games and even three World Games.
While Semmens is rightfully proud of these accomplishments, the ones that he’s most proud of are the personal ones. A recent one that he recounted in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech has to do with an athlete named Andrew. Andrew doesn’t like loud sounds and can’t race with a traditional starting gun start. A few years ago Andrew’s coaches told Semmens that he could only start with a starter bringing an arm down.
“Once I can get people to a (Special Olympics) meet, I’ve got ‘em. The feeling you walk away with is a nice feeling that you’ve done something for someone.” – Semmens
Always one for a challenge, Semmens has gradually worked with Andrew to acclimate him to noises. Before races, he would talk to Andrew and tell him what he was planning to do and demonstrate it for him, asking if it would be okay.
Over the last three years, the races that Andrew participated were started initially by taking an arm down, then with a clap, then a whistle. This year, Semmens got even closer to the standard starting gun technique. “He started the race this year with a gun with no shell,” Semmens said. “His mom was crying.”
“Part of the Special Olympics model is ‘If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ I love this idea of rising to the challenge,” Semmens said.
Semmens also just loves being on the track, his second home since he started hurdling in 1960. “It’s something I like doing. I like being around track and field. It doesn’t matter if it’s high school, college or Special Olympics – it’s nice to talk to the athletes and to see them get better,” Semmens said.
But even if you’re not a lifelong track guy like Semmens, he’s convinced that if you check out a Special Olympics Wisconsin track meet, you’ll be hooked too. “Once I can get people to a meet, I’ve got ‘em,” Semmens said. “The feeling you walk away with is a nice feeling that you’ve done something for someone.”