For about 20 minutes Wednesday, the playground at York Road Elementary School belonged to a small group of kids. The track was theirs alone for the last practice before Friday’s Olympics.
Not just any Olympics. Friday is the Area 11 Special Olympics for more than 1,100 special athletes from York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
It is not a field trip. It is not a play day. It is the one day in the year, as 40-year Special Olympics coach and prodder and confidant and exceptional needs teacher Lynn Shelton put it, “where these kids have their time to shine.”
So the line-up for a race was assembled. Never anywhere was a line-up more star-studded for a practice – or filled with more hope. The teachers and teaching assistants and the Winthrop intern and all readied the group with a “Ready, set, go!’
And off they went. Some ran. Some walked. Another rolled in a wheelchair.
“You never get tired of seeing their faces,” said the other exceptional needs teacher, Megan Simmons. “They are so excited.”
Stretched across the track were athletes as great or greater than any jock who gets the royal treatment at a high school or college.
Iziah Wright, who said, “Runner. I run.”
Nick Caroselli, who runs and runs.
James Simpson and Nygel Gardener and DeAndre Hayes. Jayceon Diaz – “Wanna see me run?” – and Nate Threatt and James Nixon. Darien Coe and Jacob Massey and Alex McIntyre.
And, yes, do not ever forget that girls are athletes who are special, too. Anna Claire Matthews and Chy Pettus, and the one young lady in the wheelchair, Payton Miller. A teaching assistant named Barbie Plyler pushed and pushed that chair.
“I will race Friday,” said Payton, who certainly will. She cannot run but she will race and she will get a medal.
As will everyone.
In the past four decades, the Area 11 games has taken one day for these kids who rarely if ever will play a sport, or be in an organized competition, and made it their day to achieve.
“We have never had a loser at our Special Olympics,” is how Kathy Covington of Rock Hill’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department puts it. Covington’s life has been dedicated to these children and adults who look forward to this one day a year as other kids might look forward to the prom or the basketball finals or the big date.
“We challenge our kids, in classrooms and athletics, but the challenge is not to win, the challenge is to do their very best,” said Shelton, that teacher for so long.
In a world where athletes are lauded and coaches lionized, here is a teacher who expects nothing of her athletes except their best effort.
So for weeks, months even, teachers in Rock Hill schools readied Special Olympics teams. Same thing at Lancaster and Chester county schools, and in York, Fort Mill and Clover.
All of them are preparing for Friday, when Cherry Park explodes into a place with softball throws and races. Joy and laughter and once in a while, a few tears. About a thousand volunteers will help – it is not too late to volunteer, either.
“Anyone who can give us the time, we can find a way to use the help,” said Terry Hagen of the recreation department.
Many volunteers are called partners at Special Olympics. Parents get partners, and athletes get partners. Most schools will have special T-shirts, just like the York Road Bulldogs will have blue T-shirts, which show off school pride.
The teaching assistants for exceptional needs kids will be there, too: Marilyn Page, Marilyn Hall, Greer Clabby, Lynne Arnson, and Melissa Reeves, the Winthrop intern who is a couple weeks from becoming a full-fledged special needs teacher herself. Her husband even came in and volunteered as a coach.
“We are a team,” said Simmons.
They sure are.
“I am running,” said Nick Caroselli, Friday, in practice as he ran and ran. And when Darien Cole, his friend, got tired, Nick helped him run. He urged him on. He encouraged him.
They finished dead last, in practice, as they ran across the finish line together.
“We won!” said Nick Caroselli.
Every teacher, every kid who could say it, said the same thing. Friday that line, “We won!” will be a thousand times strong.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • email@example.com