The racers lined up and toed the starting line and the cheers went up before the race even started. Strangers clapped, screamed and yelled for all to run as fast as their legs would carry them.
Those who had legs, anyway. Some Special Olympics athletes Friday, in the annual Area 11 games for more than 1,000 athletes from York, Chester and Lancaster counties held at Rock Hill’s Cherry Park, had no legs. They rolled in wheelchairs and they did not quit.
Almost a thousand volunteers, who took time off from jobs or school, cheered them on.
From lane 3 of the girls’ 50-meter dash rushed Ellie McGinley, 12, from York Road Elementary School in Rock Hill. Next to her galloped Lexington Peterson, 12, also of York Road. And on the other side, Shelby Self, 13, from Lewisville Middle School in rural Chester County.
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Maybe others, in other races, ran faster. But nobody ever ran harder.
As the girls chugged, their mentors – volunteers who help each athlete – were right there with them from start to finish and lining the race course. Many hugged the athletes at the end, sharing the joy of trying. Still more ran with the athletes who needed a hand to hold or a word in an ear.
There were senior citizens from the Central City Optimist Club, bankers and lawyers, students at area high schools and colleges – many cried as they urged on those who were born with disabilities and special needs yet showed what being special is all about.
Haley Bass, 18, from Lewisville High School, mentored and cheered for Shelby Self because Shelby showed in that run that all things are possible in life when you try your best.
“She is just the greatest,” said Haley Bass, of her new friend Shelby, and she was right.
Shelby beamed and showed off her medal. No athlete ever smiled wider.
Hailey Martin, 18, a freshman at Winthrop University studying special education, mentored both Ellie McGinley and Lexington Peterson. When Ellie finished her race, she leaped into the waiting arms of her family, and there was never a prouder family anywhere in the world. Same for Lexington.
“This is the one day where these athletes get to show everyone just how awesome they are,” said Hailey Martin.
Every one of them got a medal, or a ribbon, and then these athletes hugged each other because they had tried together and everybody had won something a lot more important than money or endorsements.
Each of these kids showed that to do your best is to be a champion.
There were no performance-enhanced millionaire players with commercials or phony college jocks who step onto campuses to play ball and no rich coaches complaining about referees while counting stacks of money, no fawning sports analysts who try to make heroes out of grown men playing kids games.
The Special Olympics Friday had only heart.
Every athlete showed all those attributes that sports are supposed to be about.
One girl from Fort Mill Middle School, Caroline Antilley, 14, ran right next to her mother, Leslee, for an entire race. Caroline took a long time to finish but she sure did finish, and her mom said, “My daughter can do anything!”
A dad, Jacinta Daniels, cheered for his daughter, Korie, from Castle Heights Middle School in Rock Hill, and when it was over no father who ever hugged a sports star was prouder.
“My girl!” Daniels said.
At the field next to where the girls ran, the boys had their place to shine. In one heat for the 50-yard dash were four boys from Fort Mill Middle School, all in a row: George Garas, 13; Joey Henderson, 15; Ashton Pratt, 12; and Joshua Manning, 12. The whistle blew and all four ran and their smiles lit up the park. All finished.
All stepped up onto little podiums to receive their ribbons. The cheers cascaded down from the volunteers. The volunteers rushed up to hug and congratulate and those runners beamed. They floated on air. That race, those few seconds, they were the greatest in the world.
Then the boys hugged each other, because they are buddies, and they tried, and at the Special Olympics, friends hug their pals who never, ever, quit.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065