Andrew Dys

These special athletes not immune from bad economy

From left, Zeke Milligan, Joseph Getty, Patrick Vang and Lucas Love celebrate winning medals in the 100-meter dash in the Area 11 Special Olympics at Cherry Park in April.
From left, Zeke Milligan, Joseph Getty, Patrick Vang and Lucas Love celebrate winning medals in the 100-meter dash in the Area 11 Special Olympics at Cherry Park in April.

In a brick factory in tiny Van Wyck, across the Catawba River in Lancaster County, I watched the joy of grown men as they cheered for native son Shawn Crawford in the Beijing Olympic Games. Crawford was the second-fastest man on earth that day.

But that is not nearly the most joy to be seen at the Olympics. Because right here in Rock Hill every spring is an Olympics hat will make even the most hard-hearted, cynical killjoy leap with glee.

The Special Olympics. The games where those who can run, run. Those who can walk, walk. Those who are in wheelchairs, roll. Those who cannot speak somehow find deep in their hearts the ability to make the sounds of achievement.

But this economy, like it threatens jobs and mortgages, also threatens those games. Without donations, the hundreds of people who volunteer to put on the Area 11 Special Olympics might not be able to pull off their yearly miracle.

The stuff that makes the games special -- and the ability to send the best athletes to state and even national Special Olympics games -- comes from money that businesses graciously offer. It comes from regular people.

The medals and part of the transportation, the costs of bringing together more than 1,000 special athletes from York, Chester and Lancaster counties, turns from a good idea into the best day of someone's life, because of giving.

But giving is down, everywhere.

It takes more than $20,000 to pay for local Special Olympians to be able to do what they do: Compete.

"I hope I never ever have to say we can't afford to do it," said Kathy Covington of Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism. The department coordinates the games and the even more daunting task of finding hundreds of volunteers to pull it off. "I know it is going to get difficult to raise money."

One guy in Rock Hill has spent a quarter century volunteering to make these Special Olympics work and raising money to boot. He is Jim Elkins, whose son, Jason, has been an athlete since age 6.

But what Elkins can tell you about the experience isn't about just his kid. It is about what the Special Olympics does for any athlete. The tough economic times that he and other volunteers worry about have not escaped their concern, though.

"The spirit of competition is so pure, so real, it shows all of us what doing our best in life is all about," Elkins said. "I've watched so many people who cannot walk, not at all, who competed in swimming. Swim like a fish, they did. I have heard so many people who can barely talk say, 'I did it!' It is . . . awesome."

The great thing about Special Olympics, these games that started in Rock Hill in 1970, is that anybody with a mental disability is eligible. Age 8 or age 88, and everybody in between.

And unlike in most sports, whether it is the parents in the stands at the recreation level, or high school parents and sometimes players, no Special Olympics athlete has ever gotten a penalty flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. No volunteer or parent has ever yelled at a referee.

The sounds are just the cheers of the other athletes. And the encouragement of volunteers. And the roar of the crowd.