Alumni Notes

A Job of Olympic Proportions

What does it take to coordinate travel for 6,000 amateur athletes, 200 medical personnel, and more than 1,000 coaches, chaperones and other volunteers? Lisa Del Signore, ’81, games administrator for the Empire State Games, knows well.

Del Signore has spent more than 30 years with the Games, one of the largest amateur athletic programs in the nation. She began as a seasonal employee, working for the organization in the summers between semesters at Niagara University. Although she briefly moved to Arizona to look for work as a physical education teacher after earning her B.S. from Niagara, she moved back when the Games offered her a permanent position.

“I kind of put the teaching aspect aside,” she says. “I’ve got the Games in my blood.”

That wasn’t always the case. When she was 10, her dad, Charles, a state Department of Transportation employee, and her mom, Nancy, a registered nurse, moved the family from Long Island to a working dairy farm in Maiden Bridge, N.Y., a little town outside of Albany. There, Del Signore, the third oldest of eight children, tended to the cows and the chickens, and dreamed of one day becoming a veterinarian.

Those dreams changed during her teenage years, when Del Signore became active in sports. She and four of her six brothers would spend hours playing basketball on a hoop her father hung inside the family’s barn. “We played all year long,” Del Signore says. “The ball didn’t bounce very well in the wintertime.”

Her basketball talent earned her a scholarship at Niagara University and a place on the women’s team, which competed in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women at the time. The team went to nationals a couple of times, she notes. “It was definitely a rewarding time to be involved in basketball.”

The skills she learned as a member of the Lady Eagles –– setting priorities, attention to detail, and time management –– serve her well in her role with the Empire State Games, an organization that brings New York’s best athletes together each year to compete in 28 Olympic-style sporting events. Many of these participants have gone on to become professional athletes, Olympians and world champions.

Del Signore is responsible for negotiating housing and food contracts with the host schools and planning transportation for the athletes and volunteers that participate in the Summer Games, both before and during the sporting events. This year, Del Signore oversaw the 85 buses that transported athletes from 11 different locations across the state, and the shuttles that brought them to and from 24 event venues across Western New York, including Niagara University’s Gallagher Center and Niagara Field.

Del Signore also coordinates the services of 200 doctors and athletic trainers who attend to the athletes during the Games. Many of the current athletic trainers started out as student athletic trainers and now bring their students with them, Del Signore notes. “People come back after starting with us when they were very young. We must be doing something right.”

Much of Del Signore’s work takes place in the months before the Games. Her job takes her to the host region several times during those months; she travels every third week at first, then every other week. “There’s only certain things we can do by phone,” she says.

About a week and a half before the opening ceremonies, Del Signore sets up a makeshift office on the host campus to finish her behind-the-scenes work. This year, that office was on the first floor of the Student Union at the University at Buffalo’s north campus, a space she shared with three other Games employees.

“Once the Games start, if we’ve done our job right, we don’t have much to do,” she says, adding that watching the Opening Ceremony, which is patterned after the Olympics and includes the traditional athlete procession and a torch-lighting ceremony, is her favorite part of the job. “It’s the end result of all the work,” she says.

During the four days when the Games are taking place, Del Signore typically remains in her office to field phone calls and questions from the athletes and their families and to adjust shuttle schedules that need to be changed due to weather delays or overtime.

Although she typically does not have time to watch the Games herself, she has enjoyed a couple of memorable moments. She saw Mike Tyson win a gold medal in a 1984 championship bout at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, and she sat and chatted with Governor Mario Cuomo and legendary St. John basketball coach Lou Carnesecca during a men’s basketball game in Albany one year.

“That’s my brush with greatness,” she laughs.

Once the games end, it’s time to start preparing for the next year. The 2011 Games are scheduled to take place in Rochester and plans are already under way. “In September, I’ll be meeting with regional directors,” Del Signore says. And the process will begin again.

Although Del Signore does occasionally think about the teaching career she put aside, she remainsm steadfast in her commitment to the Empire State Games. “As long as they’re still doing the Games, I’ll still be here,” she says.