Andrew Dys

April 8, 2014

Special Olympics athletes ready for annual games; Rock Hill volunteers still needed

More than 1,200 athletes will compete Friday in the Area 11 Special Olympics – York County’s largest participant sporting event of the year.

ESPN was not staked out near the Rock Hill/York County Airport on Tuesday. TV cameras were nowhere to be found. There wereno limousines or Porsches. Instead, there were buses with ramps and powered lifts.

The only people outside the offices of the York County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs were some special athletes and the workers and volunteers who help them.

No group of softball throwers, walkers, runners or people in wheelchairs ever worked harder at practice.

“Yeahhhhhhh!” came the refrain, over and over, as people who can try, did try.

Almost every throw of a bright yellow softball drew applause from others waiting their turn. Some throws drew high fives. Some brought hugs.

A few throws even brought tears of joy, because some of these athletes need help just holding the ball, or even to move a few steps.

Still, none ever quits.

Friday is not just a regular day for these people with disabilities. It is the greatest day of the year for anyone who ever dreamed of running a race or jumping – even just taking a few steps – with a crowd watching.

On Friday, the Special Olympics come to York County.

“The Special Olympics is the day that every person here who can compete does compete,” said Alfred Baker, who works for the disabilities board and led Tuesday’s practice. “Every one is a winner.”

More than 1,200 kids and adults in York, Chester and Lancaster counties – from schools and group homes and work centers for people with disabilities, such as the Horizon Industries – will board buses Friday and head for Cherry Park in Rock Hill.

Playing fields set aside for the Area 11 Special Olympics will be filled with people with bent backs, some with legs and spinal cords that do not work. All will do something on those fields that is incredible – try their very best.

There are wheelchair races and motorized cart races. There will be sprints and jumps. Every athlete will get a medal. Every athlete will get a ribbon.

For months, the people at the Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department who put on the games have raised the money it takes to put on this huge event. Many even dove into frigid Lake Wylie this winter in return for donations.

But with just a couple of days until the athletes arrive, organizers still need more volunteers to help with events and the vast amount of care that Special Olympians require.

It takes about 900 people to make sure the games run smoothly. That can only be done with the help of people who are willing to give Special Olympians one day.

“We always need extra help from volunteers” said Terry Hagen, a recreation leader at the city parks department. “Volunteers make this happen.

“For our athletes, the spring games is the most important day of the year.”

Last year, rain wiped out the Area 11 Special Olympics.

“It was the saddest day ever here,” said Sarah Peters, vocational supervisor at Horizon Industries. “It was like Christmas without the presents.”

Friday’s weather forecast – fingers crossed – is not calling for rain.

That’s another reason that at Tuesday’s practice, the athletes stood together and cheered for everybody who threw a softball five feet or 50 feet. There were claps for underhand tosses and even for a couple of athletes who just about dropped the ball.

But Friday is the real thing. Friday is medals. Friday is cheering. Friday is hot dogs.

Friday is the one day of the year just for them.

There are no booster clubs for Special Olympics athletes – except for their families and the workers who care for them.

For these people who are sometimes marginalized in our world, who never had the chance to try out for a team or go to practice, Friday is the day that proves that the only losers in the world are the ones who dare not to try.

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