Special Olympics athletes take field

Published 8:17 pm Thursday, March 29, 2012

Winners in the 25-meter run (from left): Brittany Walston from P.S. Jones Middle School took third place; Tara Reddick from Lifequest placed first; Mikayla Holley from Snowden Elementary School took second. The three competed in the Special Olympics games held at Washington High School on Thursday. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

At the Special Olympics opening ceremony, 140 voices repeated the athlete’s oath, a pledge that would launch competitors from two counties onto the track at Washington High School.

On Thursday, representatives from eight schools in Beaufort County, four community groups, and Hyde County vied for top honors in the Special Olympics games. The athletic events give exceptional children and mentally delayed adults the chance to compete at their level, giving them the “opportunity to shine,” according to Kathy Newman, one of the event’s coordinators.

Under a blue spring sky, competitors wore red, their escorts from one event to the next wore white, and everyone wore smiles.

“This gives (the athletes) confidence,” said Terry Conner, who has volunteered for Special Olympics for more than 30 years. “They’re not having to sit and watch what other people can do. It’s something they look forward to all year long.”

Conner was there in the mid-1970s when the first Special Olympics was held at John Cotten Tayloe school in Washington. Those first games started small, though since, coordinator Phyllis Hendrickson “took it and ran with it,” according to Conner.

In addition to the track and field games that took place Thursday, Hendrickson has organized Special Olympics bowling teams that practice in Williamston, alpine skiing teams that compete in Boone, and a team of five swimmers, four power lifters, and five track and field athletes that will attend the North Carolina Special Olympic summer games in Raleigh in June.

“We’re hoping to have a basketball team in the fall,” said Hendrickson.

Another one of Hendrickson’s hopes for the Special Olympics crew is a sailing team, of which there is only one other in the state, located in Raleigh.

“We’ve got the perfect location for it,” explained Hendrickson. “It’d be a big draw for people to come for the competition.”

The competition was decidedly not fierce at Thursday’s games—winners were thrilled, but non-winners were just as thrilled for the winners.

In mini-ceremonies throughout the day, first-, second-, and third-place ribbons were given out to winners standing on a raised dais, many of those winners sporting a collection of ribbons hanging around their necks.

Though competitors have to be eight years old to compete in Special Olympics, organizers reached out to a different age bracket this year, involving developmentally delayed children in the games at a younger age. One and 1/2-year-olds to seven-year-olds played more “carnival-like” games, jumping on hoppy balls and dancing.

“We just want to get them involved,” said Newman.

The Special Olympics volunteers have also succeeded in involving other organizations in the games: The ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) provides lunch, students from Southside, Northside, and Washington high schools volunteer as “buddies” for athletes, Lifequest’s program director Adam Congleton set up “Olympic Town” where athletes could learn more healthy lifestyles, and the participation of Project UNIFY, a club in which traditional students and special-needs students work on club projects together.

On the day that Special Olympics athletes come out to compete, the competitiveness is surpassed by far with good cheer. A third place ribbon means just as much as first.

“They’re not really interested in winning,” said Conner. “You see a lot of good sportsmanship. Just watching them teaches us how we’re supposed be—that’s what I’ve learned in my 30 years.”