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Special Olympics in Rock Hill show true spirit of competition

The contestants fiercely did the best they could do.

More than 1,100 of them walked and ran and rolled – a few were even were led by guide dogs because the contestants were blind.

In dozens of events, officials measured distances for softball throws and broad jumps and timed runners in dashes.

Not a single person yelled at an umpire or referee. No parent or spectator called the ump a cheatin’ bum. The cops were there, but only for parking and traffic – more than 3,000 people had to get into, out of and around Rock Hill’s Cherry Park.

The Special Olympics has no boos. It is incomparable in its greatness and simplicity and devotion to daring to try.

The only raised voices at Friday’s 44th annual Area 11 games – for students and adults with special needs from York, Chester and Lancaster counties – was when somebody tried to sneak in the line for hot dogs.

At the standing broad jump, held in the dirt of the softball fields third base line, distances were measured as far as 7 feet – accomplished by 18-year-old student Darius Melford from Fort Mill High School.

“My ribbon,” said Darius, “showing a blue ribbon that means first place.

But the cheers, the loudest yells that rose into the air and brought more spectators running, came for people who were frightened and scared – but who still jumped because hundreds of volunteers and spectators egged them on.

The crowds stomped. They clapped.

A huge contingent of volunteers – from Citi Financial in blue shirts, Wells Fargo in red shirts, Starbucks in green shirts and pointy earrings and spikes in some noses and ears and some hair that defies descriptions – yelled for the athletes.

All gave their time, 900-plus volunteers, for these competitors.

They applauded and yelled and a lady who is a client of the York County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs – who lives in a group home with other special adults and whose life is usually just other special people and the adults who care for them, whose whole life was made happy by all this attention – jumped exactly 8 inches.

The place exploded with joy.

Moms and dads, hundreds of them, walked with their kids on the one day in the year when the special needs child was a star. These kids did not so much walk as stride and float and soar.

The scene played out over and over, at fields around the park. Students from Clover’s Larne Elementary ran and threw after the whole school, 600 students, gave them a send-off and standing ovation Friday morning.

From Chester High School, a group of teenaged girls did what teenaged girls do. They talked and giggled and held hands.

Every athlete had a partner. The partner was not a Special Olympian. But the partners seemed to get just as much, maybe more, than the athletes out of the day.

Hannah Price, who took a second-place ribbon for her running, was partnered with Breisshya Tobias.

“She is my friend,” Hannah said of Breisshya. “She is awesome.”

“No, you are awesome,” said Breisshya of Hannah.

The two had never been, and will never be, in any of the same classes at school. Different social groups, different life paths. But they sure were tight Friday. The hands held together sure looked like they were knotted.

Everybody had a new friend just like them.

Other girls from Chester High School’s Junior Civitan Club, a group dedicated to volunteerism, all had an exceptional student whom they did not know, or barely knew, before the games. The friendships grew Friday, past introductions, to something far bigger and stronger.

“What every student learns here cannot be taught,” said Haley Bryant, Chester’s art teacher and a volunteer herself. “It is love for others, and respect, and doing the best you can for someone else.”

Then the girls left, holding hands, for the next event.

Yet unlike regular sports at schools, the $20,000 it costs to put on these games run by Rock Hill’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism department that have somehow survived since 1968 comes from donations.

Hundreds of people gave money. Hundreds more donated time and services. Even the T-shirts that each school wore, most schools had to raise money for that. They had to raise money to pay the bus drivers to get there Friday.

The Special Olympics teachers, parents and volunteers always find a way to raise the money.

Over at the 100-meter dash, some sure did dash. Some walked. All finished.

A Rock Hill High student named Ashley Alt, 16, tall and lean and athletic and smiling, was cheered on, loud, by the words from behind a fence: “Run like the wind! You go! Smile like the sunshine!”

Alt ran the fastest time of the day. The voice was not a parent, not even an adult. It was Jonathan Lipford, 15, who goes to school with Ashley Alt and is a Special Olympian himself.

“She is on my team,” said Jonathan. “I want her to be the best. She wins and we win. So I won, too.”

So many teammates huddled around Jonathan Lipford to say that he sure did win. They hugged him and mobbed him.

His ribbon was for sixth place.

Nobody even noticed.