Before any ribbons were handed out. Before any competitions. Before the Special Olympics Summer Games began at Wesley Chapel High School on March 1, every athlete enjoyed rousing cheers and applause.
The opening ceremonies included a lap around the track for the approximately 475 athletes who participated — walking, waving and proudly representing their respective schools. The actual attendance was much higher, with parking filled to overflow, families and friends in the stands and volunteers helping everyone get organized for the day’s activities.
But it was the athletes who were soaking up the fun and support.
“It feels amazing,” said Carlos Ortiz, who has participated in the Special Olympics since 2008. “You get to have fun and talk to your friends.”
Ortiz also serves as a global messenger for the organization, which enables him to speak to groups and individuals about the benefits of the Special Olympics.
While the athletes were socializing and preparing for their events, their parents were enjoying the moment as well. Denise Peeks, whose daughter Tiffany competes in cycling, said the community support means a lot.
“I’m just glad to know that, not only are the parents supporting them, but they are embraced by the community,” she said. “The business community and the volunteers come out and they get so much support that they so desperately need. I think it’s fantastic.”
Tiffany is a previous gold-medal winner in her event and looks forward to competing and having fun, Peeks added.
Jennifer Lynch agrees about the importance of community support. Her son, Alex, also has won gold in cycling, and said that the Special Olympics is a much-needed day of inclusion for students and parents dealing with intellectual disabilities.
“I think it helps him to feel like he’s part of a community,” she said. “There are so many things he is excluded from and so many activities he can’t do. But this is one that he can, and everyone can rally around and support him.”
In addition to cycling, Lynch said that Alex also participates in basketball when it’s a designated sport. At the Summer Games, athletes compete in cycling, bocce, track and field, soccer skills and tennis.
The volunteers also enjoyed themselves, including Wesley Chapel High freshman John Margetis. A special-needs student himself, Margetis is a high-functioning participant and thought it would be best to volunteer and let others have their moment at the games. He also participates in the school’s Wildcat Wings club, which is a social inclusion group designed to help special needs students interact with other students.
Margetis relates to the athletes and their needs.
“I felt like I should be a part of this,” he said. “I feel like they feel.”
The winners at the events earned ribbons, and many will continue competing in the area games for a chance to participate in the state games. But the goal was for everyone involved to have a good time and give proud parents like Peeks and Lynch an opportunity to cheer while their children show what they can accomplish with some guidance and support.
“It gives us an opportunity to allow our babies to showcase their skills and their talents,” Peeks said.
Published March 5, 2014