Let them win, but if they cannot win, let them brave in the attempt.
The 22nd annual Area 15 Special Olympics was held last week and each athlete competed with the oath of the Olympian in their hearts.
This year had a record breaking attendance with 285 athletes competing in track and field events at James D. Lillard Field at Heritage High School. The events ranged from the 50- and 100- yard dash, softball throw, long jump to wheel chair events.
Before the games, two athletes set out on a five mile run in the 2008 Law Enforcement Torch Run. The father and son team, Gregg and Riley Marion ran, one by foot and the other by stroller, alongside the Special Olympic Torch, starting at the Blount County Justice Center and ending at the Heritage High School track. It was a run that they have been planning since last year.
“We’ve seen the torch travel past us and thought it would be neat to run with them since Riley had to be there anyways,” Gregg Marion said. His wife, Konni, called the organizers of the torch run and within no time the word spread and they “suddenly became celebrities.”
“It was an awesome run,” he said. “It is something we definitely plan on doing again next year, and hopefully we can get some friends to run too,” he said.
Gregg and Riley met with five other athletes at Heritage and with one final lap around the track - the Flame of Hope was lit.
The day was filled with cheers, hugs and congratulations as each athlete competed in his or her events. The age range of the athletes was a young as 8-years-old and went to athletes in their mid-60s.
Area Director Cookie Crowson, assistant director of Parks and Recreation, said the day was a huge success. As she walked around all the events, she was greeted with smiles and high-fives, and from the expressions on the athletes’ faces, she knew the day was an achievement they will remember.
This year was the 40th anniversary of the Special Olympics, and Crowson has been with the Blount County Special Olympics since its first appearance in 1986. “This event would not have worked without the volunteers,” she said. The countless hours the volunteers put in are vital in making the day possible, she added.
“We will actually start tomorrow to plan for the next year. We have 11 months and 29 days to critique and improve (it) for next year,” she said.
The track and field events are not the only Special Olympics Games Crowson and her volunteers direct. She said they are attempting to make a yearly schedule of competitions in different sports. So far there is basketball in February, swimming in March, track and field in April, bowling in September and roller-skating in November.
It was not just the 300 volunteers that made the Special Olympics a success. Crowson said there were some unsung heroes. “People always forget about the parent aspect,” she said. “They are a tremendous part of the community and (they) encourage their children to do their best.”
No one understands that more than Jennifer Lopez-Gutierrez.
Lopez-Gutierrez is the mother of 12-year-old Chanelle Stopp and this was their debut in the track and field Special Olympics. Chanelle participated with nine of her classmates from Eagleton Middle School. “This is her first time doing anything like this,” Lopez-Gutierrez said. “She wanted to join (every event) that she could. I’m just very excited for her.”
Chanelle placed in second in both of her events -- the 50-yard dash and the long jump. Her mother said she did enjoy the track and field events but she prefers the other Special Olympic Games, specifically the roller-skating. “Her favorite part was just hanging out with her friends and having a good time,” Lopez-Gutierrez said.
Chanelle was awarded a second place medal for her events but Crowson said there is not an athlete who goes home empty handed. “There are the first, second and third place medals, but everyone goes home with a participant medal,” Crowson said.
The athletes are not the sole winners at the Special Olympics. “The athletes are the winners in some respect, but so are those of us who organized and volunteered. We take home more than we give,” she said.
During the Special Olympics, awards were handed out to top athletes and top coaches. The Colin Award, an Area 15 local award, goes to a “Special Olympian who stands out in the hearts and minds of others and as ‘going that extra mile’ every day.” The award is in tribute and remembrance of the former athletes and is named after Colin Bemis. This year’s 15th annual Colin Award recipient was James Horton of Maryville Middle School. “Thank you for coming to the Special Olympics. This is a great day. Thank you for the award,” he said.
The Virginia Simmons Coach of the Year was award to Debbie Boring of Lanier Elementary School for “(her) unselfish and loyal dedication to Area 15 in Blount County … facing adversity with courage … (and with) much appreciation for the personal influence to our children.”
As the day was coming to a close and the cheers of “I did it!” slowly faded, the Special Olympics’ Flame of Hope was extinguished, waiting to be relit next year.