Special Olympics builds confidence in athletes

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Around 300 athletes from the northeast Tennessee area got a chance to compete in track and field events against their peers and friends on Friday as East Tennessee State University once again played host to the Area III Special Olympics.
   The day kicked off in true Olympic fashion with a parade of the athletes with Miss Johnson City and ETSU track and field athlete Jennifer Whittington serving as Grand Marshal. After the parade of athletes, Whittington passed off the Olympic Torch to Special Olympics athlete David Gregory, 22, of Science Hill High School who lit the Olympic Caldron.
   Also during the opening ceremony, three local brothers who are all Special Olympics athletes -- James, Johnathan and Brandon Dabbs -- led the athletes, volunteers, parents and others in attendance in the Pledge of Allegiance as the ETSU ROTC Color Guard presented the American flag. After the reciting of the Pledge, the soft sounds of Special Olympics athlete Joanna Torgerson's voice echoed through the ETSU Mini-Dome as she sang the National Anthem.
   Athletes for Area III of the Special Olympics competed in a variety of track and field events including the 50, 100 and 200 meter dash, a one mile run, softball throw, long jump and several wheel chair events. The top finishing athletes from the competition on Friday will go on to represent Area III in the upcoming State Special Olympics to be held in Nashville in May.
   For Gregory, the spirit of competition is one of his favorite parts of the Special Olympics. Gregory, in addition to lighting the Olympic Torch, competed in the softball throw and 50 yard dash events. Gregory said he has a lot of friends who also compete in the Special Olympics and that he likes to hear the people clap and cheer for him while he is competing.
   The support of the parents, event coordinators and volunteers is important to the spirit of the games, said Deborah Grant, who works as the volunteer coordinator for the event and this year oversaw approximately 180 volunteers. "Our mission is to inspire greatness," Grant said, adding that the games also help build the confidence of the athletes who participate in them. "This gives the Special Olympics athletes the chance to enjoy the spirit of competition and be a winner today."
   Helping to build the confidence of the athletes is what the spirit of the games is all about, according to Grant. "The athlete oath of the Special Olympics is 'Let me win and if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt,'" she said.
   Frankie Laleman, a 15-year-old student at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, loves competing in the games because it gives him a chance to do one of his favorite activities -- running. "I race in competition," he said, adding that he has a lot of friends who are also Special Olympics athletes. "My friend Johnathan is going to compete with me. It makes me compete."
   James Dabbs, 21, who along with his brothers led the athletes in the Pledge of Allegiance, said one of his favorite parts of the games is hearing the support from the crowd when he competes. "I like to compete. I like everybody clapping for me and yelling 'Go James,'" said Dabbs, who competed in the 50 yard dash and the softball throw.
   The Special Olympics is "an international organization that changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion between people with and without intellectual disabilities," states information from the organization. "Through year-round sports training and athletic competition and other related programming for more than 1 million children and adults with intellectual disabilities in more than 150 countries, Special Olympics has created a model community that celebrates people's diverse gifts."
   The organization was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and provides people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to realize their potential, demonstrate courage, develop physical fitness, and experience joy and friendship. There is no cost to the athletes or their families to participate in the Special Olympics.
   "Special Olympics currently serves more than 1 million persons with intellectual disabilities in more than 200 programs in more than 150 countries," states information from the organization. "In 2000, Special Olympics made a bold commitment to reach 2 million athletes by the end of 2005, placing a renewed focus on building the movement's infrastructure and establishing tools to facilitate growth. An initial census of athlete participation conducted in that year established a baseline count of athletes worldwide."