Though fewer in number in recent years, the athletes at Saturday’s Special Olympics at the St. Croix Renaissance field were as enthusiastic as ever, whether or not they won their event.
Kicking off the event, the traditional march of athletes around the track was led by the St. Croix Central High School Junior ROTC Color Guard. The CHS drill team performed after the competitors’ parade.
Jamila Russell, ADA coordinator for the territory, led the singing of the national anthem and the V.I. March in the place of Gerald Evans, who had done the honors for decades but was not available, this year. Then the athletes took the Special Olympics pledge, vowing to be brave in the effort, whether or not they won.
And then the games began. Athletes grouped roughly by age started shooting basketballs, tossing bocce and softballs, running and long jumping. After they finished one activity they moved across the field to compete in the other events. Almost everyone got a medal.
Jennifer Richards and Medina Roberts are friends who competed side by side in many of the events. Running is their favorite sport, they said, and both won several medals. They practice together, they said, and didn’t seem to care who won.
There were several changes in the 39th event. Long-time director Janet Lee was capably replaced by her daughter, Jana Lee.
There were new events – soccer and basketball games in the afternoon. The games are keeping in line with Special Olympics “unified” program that teams non-challenged competitors with the intellectually challenged, according to Lee. The soccer game paired Special Olympians with students from St. Croix high schools and the basketball game students from Arthur Richards Junior High.
“We have to get rid of the stigma and to do that we have to treat everybody equal. Everybody can be trained to some level,” Lee said.
A bowling league will be started this spring using the “unified” philosophy, Lee said, and people with or without disabilities are invited to join.
Many Special Olympics volunteers help out year after year, for a variety of reasons. There are teachers and government officials who keep track of times, lead athletes to their events or keep score. Some have children participating, and others enjoy seeing the athletes as they mature.
Maureen Moorhead, a special education teacher, has volunteered at Special Olympics for more than 30 years. The event is an opportunity for athletes to learn and demonstrate their strengths. Every four years, a dozen or more from the Virgin Islands compete at the World Games and experience the life of an Olympian for a few days.
“Just seeing the expressions on the faces of the children and the pride with which they show their medals and share their experience,” is the reason she volunteers, Moorhead said.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp handed out medals to some of the competitors, who grinned happily at meeting the territory’s top official. Mapp said he has attended Special Olympics for many years.
“It’s all about including everybody. The participants can compete and show that everyone has strengths and challenges. It’s all about tolerance and acceptance,” he said.
Several people spoke about the declining numbers of participants and promised to help promote Special Olympics next year.
Russell agreed the event is important, allowing athletes to excel in their own arena. The event follows the ADA’s principle of inclusion to involve people with special needs in public activities, using technology when necessary.
Russell said her favorite part of the day was cheering on her son, who competed in several events.
The district director for Special Education, Lyrhea Bryan-Heyliger, also helped out with Saturday’s event “to see the expressions when they cross the finish line.”
Russell and Bryan-Heyliger both plan to help promote the event next year through the schools, the media and parent conferences.
Gov. Mapp also said he plans to focus attention on the event and competitors by hosting a barbeque on St. Croix and St. Thomas in the near future to “let the community come out and support” the athletes.