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Special Olympians enjoy camraderie, competition

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- About 700 athletes from all over West Virginia converged on the University of Charleston's Laidley Field for the state Special Olympics Saturday.

On a sunny afternoon, volunteers and athletes meandered between tents to snack on sandwiches and watch family and friends compete.

"They're never defeated,"  said Tabitha Lair, a volunteer coordinator. "They don't understand the word defeat."

The Special Olympics is an annual sporting event for children and adults with disabilities.

Athletes competed in track and field, swimming, golf, tennis, bocce, cycling and softball events.

Some participants sang classic tunes like "Sweet Caroline" and "Country Roads" at the karaoke stand by the entrance to Laidley Field on Charleston's East End.

Down by the track, competitors launched themselves into a sandpit for the long jump. Others danced the hokeypokey on a patch of grass behind the stadium. One pair of brothers from Marshall County marched purposefully around the track during the 100-meter walking competition.

Whether the athletes win or lose, they simply enjoy the competition and camaraderie facilitated by the Special Olympics, Lair said.

That attitude creates an upbeat atmosphere that permeates the whole stadium.

"You cannot be unhappy here," Lair said.

Bianca Brorn, a volunteer, agreed.

"It makes you really appreciate life," Brorn said as she spread mayonnaise on her sandwich.

This year, the Special Olympics drew the best volunteer turnout Lair has ever seen.

"I have volunteers coming out of my ears," Lair said. "It's the best problem in the world."

Lair said that many people are initially hesitant to volunteer time, but when volunteers arrive, they come to understand how "special" the Special Olympics can be.

"Most people are trepidatious until they get here," Lair said. "But once you're here, you see how wonderful it is."

That's why volunteers often return to the Olympics to volunteer again and again, Lair said.

Phyllis Potterfield, for example, has volunteered at the Special Olympics for more than thirty years.

Potterfield organized awards ceremonies, where athletes who climbed the podium to smile proudly for the families, teammates and friends crowded on the pavement below.

The Special Olympics provides an environment where participants can be their best, Potterfield said.

Other volunteers came to the event for the first time.

The Crane family were first-time volunteers at the Olympics on Saturday.

For Dave Crane, the event offered a good way for his family -- including his 11-year old-daughter and 13-year-old son -- to give back to the community.

"It's so inspiring to see the athletes," Cindy Crane said. "They have a great attitude -- very positive and excited about each event."

Charlene Gross, another first-time volunteer, sat under a tent to watch the wheelchair races. Like Cindy Crane, Gross called the determination of the athletes inspiring.

Gross recalled one young boy push his chair across the finish line while his family stood cheering on the sidelines.

"It was heart wrenching to see him so proud of himself," Gross said.

Such stories bring volunteers back year after year, said Matt Izzo, another volunteer.

"It's the participants who make us keep coming back," Izzo said. "The joy on their faces when the cross the finish line or reach a goal in the shot put -- it's amazing."

Izzo became involved with the Special Olympics through the National Guard, which has provided resources and manpower to help the event behind the scenes.

Many staff members first discovered the Special Olympics through family members who suffer from disabilities.

Potterfield first heard about the Special Olympics 30 years ago when her brother competed. They have attended countless Special Olympic events together since then.

Lair also has a sibling who has competed in the Olympics -- a sister who suffers from Down syndrome.

"You grow up a lot faster because you learn that the world isn't fair," Lair said.

The Special Olympics were an opportunity for her sister to showcase how strong and independent she could be, Lair said.

Kellie Aikman, whose sister has cerebral palsy, first began going to the Special Olympics in Arizona when she was 10.

"I've been a family member, a coach, and now a staff member here," Aikman said.

Lair and other volunteers agree that they have benefited from helping the athletes at the event.

"They're touching our lives as much as we're touching theirs," Lair said.

Lair recounted one story about a volunteer from a local Girl Scout troop, who gave an athlete a tube of lip gloss last year. On Saturday, the same athlete approached the same Girl Scout and thanked her for the lip gloss.

"That really touched her heart," she said.  Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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