STEUBENVILLE - As they gathered for the 36th annual Ohio Area 9 Special Olympics qualifier, hundreds of athletes from Jefferson, Belmont, Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Harrison, Holmes and Carroll counties displayed their love of sports.
And while many medals and ribbons were awarded to the winners of various competitions, many of the athletes revealed, through their words and actions, the event was about more than winning.
Held at Harding Stadium, the event included bocce competitions, races ranging from 50 to 1,500 meters in length, standing and running long jumps, a shotput competition, a javelin toss using a 2 foot long plastic projectile; and many other track and field events.
TAKING AIM – Jantiera Dudley of Wintersville takes aim in the mini javelin competition, a new event held during the 36th annual Ohio Area 9 Special Olympics qualifier Saturday at Harding Stadium. More than 300 athletes from several counties participated in bocce and field and track events held at the event. -- Warren Scott
Mary Kay Schuetz, director of Jefferson County Special Olympics, said this year's event was one of the few without rain but even when it has rained, the games usually go on and the athletes are undetered.
"In the 35 years I've been involved, it was canceled once, when there was lightning and thunder," she said.
Schuetz, who oversees 57 local athletes, said the competitors have ranged in age from 8 to 84, and the number of senior Special Olympians impresses her and many others.
"I would like to be that active then," she said.
Schuetz said some athletes like to try a different sport each year, while others stick to one.
One thing they have in common is their determination to do their best.
That was evident in many events but particularly in the 100-meter assisted walk, in which a blind athlete held a line along the athletic track as she proceeded to the finish line. She grinned as she approached her destination, ahead of many competitors who can see.
And like many athletes, some Special Olympians put aside personal issues as they stepped forth to compete.
Scott Atkins of Harrison County impressed many attendees with his far-reaching shotput throws and handed the official his towel to wipe the ball after he was done. His mother Sue normally is on hand to cheer for him but is battling cancer.
Saturday's event determined which athletes will compete at the Ohio Special Olympic Summer Games to be held June 22-24 at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Brian Wedlake of Steubenville has competed in Special Olympics for about 14 years and practices 30 or 45 minutes each week. After winning a gold medal in a track event, Wedlake said he has competed at the Ohio Special Olympics Summer Games twice and hopes to return this year.
But he said in addition to the opportunity to compete, the event offers him the chance to meet new people.
When asked what she enjoys most about Special Olympics, Marlene Sawkaic, an athlete from Dillonvale, summed up the attitude of many of the competitors.
"I like to play the games and be a good sport," said Sawkaic, who was proud of the fourth place ribbon she earned for bocce while enjoying rooting for her friends at the Atwood Group Home.
"We stress the sportsmanship a lot. That's very important," said Joe Thomas of Steubenville, a Jefferson County Special Olympics coach, who noted the program involves athletes of varying abilities who all strive to do their best.
Most importantly, they have fun, he added.
As an independent provider for people with special needs, Melissa Porreca of Wintersville, is used to taking individuals with disabilities to the movies, shopping and other excursions.
They enjoy going out and doing different things, and she enjoys their company, she said.
"They appreciate what you do so much. It's rewarding to work with somebody like that. It's fun. It's not work for me," Porreca said.
She also has attended five Special Olympics events and learned it's a special occasion for them.
"They're excited," Porreca said, noting the day included a stop for coffee and breakfast on the way to the stadium, at one athlete's request, and there will be a stop for dinner on the way home.
"It's a long day for them, but they enjoy it," she said.
Many local students and adults lent their time to the event, serving as officials, helping the athletes in getting to the various events and assisting in other ways.
Also supporting the event were many area businesses, groups and individuals, including the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Staley Communications, World Radio Telecommunications, Kroger Food and Drug, Riesbeck's Food Stores, Snack Brothers, McDonald's, which provided food and entertainment by Ronald McDonald; and Steubenville City Schools.
Dick Sperry, Special Olympics area director, said the event benefits from donations from many and the support of many volunteers.
But he and John Blosco, assistant director; said the program, like many, has been impacted by the tough economic times locally. They encouraged residents to make donations to the program through the Area 9 office at 1600 Pershing Ave., Steubenville.
Sperry, who has served as director for 37 years, added the program needs younger adults to step in and carry it forward.
He noted the program was begun by a group of Toronto Jaycees, many of whom have remained involved.
Blosco said, "We have a lot of local people who aren't affiliated with the Jaycees now. But they've fallen in love with it and keep coming each year."
"It's a workshop of love," agreed Sperry, who added, "It's one of the greatest things I look forward to."