The largest crowd of Special Olympics athletes, volunteers, parents, friends and classmates in recent memory filed into the mini-dome at East Tennessee State University on Friday for the 2013 Area 3 Track and Field Games.
Local dignitaries there to welcome 375 youth and adult competitors from 35 schools and adult service programs in Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson counties included Johnson City Mayor Jeff Banyas, ETSU Facilities Director Tom Trent, Johnson City Power Board CEO Jeff Dykes and representatives of nine area law enforcement agencies who took part in a Special Olympics Torch Run from city hall to ETSU.
The Happy Valley High School Drum Corps blasted a trumpet fanfare for the athletes’ entrance into the dome and set the cadence for their parade around the arena floor. The Science Hill High School Cheer Squad cheered.
Science Hill’s Junior ROTC Color Guard carried in the flag. The torch runners lit the torch. Dr. James Bennington, of Wesley United Methodist Church, led a prayer. Athlete Joanna Torgerson sang the national anthem. Kaitlynn White led the Pledge of Allegiance. Athlete Eileen Paduch led the Special Olympics Oath. Speicial Olympics directors thanked ETSU and the games’ many sponsors and volunteers. Tull declared the games open. And the competition began.
Thirteen-year-old James Hodge from Boones Creek Middle School was among the early winners. With a bronze medal from the 100-meter dash already around his neck, Hodge stepped up to take gold with a sailing softball throw that sent the volunteer scorekeepers from the Power Board running.
“It’s a lot of fun for them,” Hodges’ teacher, Gail Brocklebank, said. There was a team of 12 athletes from Boones Creek, Brocklebank said. “It’s a very, very good event for them to participate in. It makes them feel like winners. They are all winners.”
“I am having a good time,” an exuberant David Randall said. Keeping the conversation with his Dawn of Hope teammates lively, Randall continued emphatically, “I am an athlete. I play T-ball.”
Then spying an old friend, former Dawn of Hope Workshop Director Randy Cook, with a team from Happy Valley, his attention turned elsewhere. “There’s a prom coming up,” he called to Cook. And in response to his friend’s inquiry, he assured him he had “just one” girlfriend to take to the dance.
Waiting for the start of what would be her second gold-winning performance of the day, Donna Fulkerson, a member of the women’s team from Johnson City’s Dawn of Hope Development Center, confided demurely, “I ran with a policeman.”
One of 70 athletes from Dawn of Hope, Fulkerson attributed her success to her love for running and for her spot in the local Challenger Softball League. But in that quiet moment before her next competition, her unceasing smile was as much about her victory as her honorary ride to the dome in the police department’s torch run escort vehicle.
Observing the games with the Power Board’s volunteer team, Dykes said, “You could not find people with bigger hearts than the folks who come out here and volunteer ... or bigger hearts than these kids in here.” Asked about the opening ceremony, Dykes described the athlete vocalists as simply “beautiful.”
Nine-year-old Eva Balcells from Fairmont Elementary School was another of the event’s most inspiring competitors. Standing up from her tiny wheelchair, Balcells took gold in the assisted walk competition. But she was equally excited about her performance in the tennis ball throw and the catch she made when a volunteer official tossed her the ball.
“It’s been a great day,” said Polkie Gregory, the track and field games’ longtime master of ceremonies. Like Randall, Gregory said she had most enjoyed seeing old friends, including a surprise visit from Area 3 Special Olympics’ former director Chad Wampler and a laugh shared with athlete Ralph Burke, a former student she has known for 40 years. He told her his birthday is coming up and he will be 28 years old, and she will be too.
Special Olympics board member Kim Britt said attendance at this year’s games was larger than it has been in many years and was particularly pleased to see an increase in the number of parents and an entire class of students from Washington County Schools who chose the games for their spring field trip and came out to cheer on their teams.