The race had four runners. Three could run. One could not. The one who could not run – and if she could speak did not say a word – started with one step. And a mighty step it was.
No words were needed.
Courage is its own language.
The cheers alongside the race track started as quiet as a church hymn. Then claps, screams and tears of joy from grown people as if they had seen the most beautiful sunrise.
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Before it was over at the Special Olympics for people with disabilities at Rock Hill’s Cherry Park on Tuesday, people clapped, ran, jumped and cried along along the race route. Jada Coit finished 100 yards.
She walked the distance in almost a minute and a half.
Jada Coit, 11 years old from Chester Park elementary school, walked because she has to have oxygen. She lugged that oxygen tank on a rolling cart for the entire 100-yard dash.
Nobody anywhere was ever prouder to walk in a race.
Jada stepped lively and she pulled her cart with the tank and her braids flew and her smile flashed. The other racers who were able to run – and run they did so well – turned around after finishing and clapped for Jada as she walked to the finish.
And when she was done, the teens serving as volunteers from so many high schools rushed to her to hug her, and congratulate her, and tell her that she was the greatest.
Daniela Castanon, a 10-year-old from York and an athlete herself, cheered for Jada. Daniela’s sister, Lisa Aguilar, cheered for her sister and then cheered for Jada.
Then Jada walked with her oxygen to the stand where the medals and ribbons are handed out to all 1,000-plus athletes from York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
The young and the old – everybody who tries their best – get a ribbon or a medal. Daniela won the race and got a gold medal. She smiled so wide and her sister did, too.
Jada earned her second ribbon of the day. She came in fourth in a four-person race. Everybody on that softball field converted to a race field looked at Jada and shared in her celebration.
Jada Coit smiled and held up her arm.
She said nothing. Her smile said more than words.
Around her, it happened over and over, with every athlete. Every one of them beamed.
All over those softball and soccer fields at Cherry Park where the parents, teachers, volunteers and special needs specialists from schools and adult day cares who had brought the athletes.
These games for South Carolina’s Area 11 that encompasses York, Chester and Lancaster counties started in 1968 and remain the largest single athlete/volunteer event in this part of South Carolina. More than 1,000 volunteers helped pull it off.
Hundreds of teens from area schools volunteered as guides, mentors and friends to strangers who were strangers no more. They clapped, cheered and hugged.
Money was raised this past year as it is every year – from polar plunges into frigid Lake Wylie to doughnut-eating contests and cops on roofs and more – so that these special people could compete and experience the thrill of competition.
Colleges give out millions in scholarships for athletes. Professional teams pay their athletes millions. But no sporting event anywhere in 2016 has been any better than Tuesday’s Area 11 games.
Several Rock Hill police officers helped the guys at a boys’ running event. Carlos Culbreath and Arthur Philson whose job is to catch criminals did not do that Tuesday. They were caught up in the joy all around them instead.
Lamaje Young, 13, ran his race. He was swift. He came in first. But he was shy. He didn’t want to talk. Officers Culbreath and Philson ran up and told him how great Lamaje was and how proud they were to meet him. And from somewhere deep inside Lamaje Young smiled. His smile was so wide, it took up his whole face.
“Running fast is something I do pretty good,” he blurted out.
The fields were covered with such joy. Special needs school mates in the same classes at so many schools holding hands during and after races. Hugging each other. Did any of them win their races? Nobody remembered. Nobody cared.
Because at the Special Olympics Area 11 games on Tuesday, everybody won.