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Olympics in town

Around 2,000 people were on the campus of Troy University this weekend for a truly special event.

Troy played host to the 2009 Special Olympics Alabama State Games from May 15-17.

More than 1,400 coaches, chaperones and athletes were a part of the event, while more than 400 people volunteered their time to help with the games.

Special Olympics touches more than 4 million people worldwide and the Alabama State games were no different.

“I get a great spiritual uplift when I see the athletes, no matter what adversity they face, smiling when they cross that finish line,” said volunteer Jim Barnes. “It’s my spiritual awakening for the year.”

While athletes came from all over the state to compete in the games, five of the athletes were part of the Pike County community.

All five of Pike County’s athletes competed in two events each, and all five brought home two medals.

Kaleb Brown won gold medals in both the tennis ball throw and the 25-meter wheelchair race.

Sairah Garner won gold in the softball throw and the standing long jump, with Daniel Jackson winning gold in the same two events in his division.

David Spivey won a silver medal in the 100-meter run and a bronze medal in the softball throw.

Joey Welch also took home a pair of gold medals in two different swimming events.

“I did very well,” Jackson said. “ I had a very good time. It’s very competitive. I’m used to the long jump being running, but this is standing, so it’s harder.

Although the coaches and chaperones of the Pike County team were happy for their team’s success, they were also happy with the overall experience that the Special Olympics provide. “It’s just rewarding to see them and their accomplishments,” said Meredith Welch, co-head of delegation for the Pike County team. “To see them have an accomplishment that others take for granted every day is great.”

Meagan Roberts, the other co-head of delegation for Pike County, was also excited about the team’s involvement in the games.

“It’s really touching. I am a teacher at Charles Henderson, so several of them are my students. It’s just amazing to see their faces. They get so excited,” Roberts said. “We’ve talked about it all school year, so they’re very excited about getting to come out here and participate. Whether they get a gold medal or just a participation award, any award means something to them.”

Parents of the athletes were also thrilled to be a part of the Special Olympics, as it provided them with an opportunity to bond with others from across the state.

“We have really enjoyed it and we’ve met a lot of people who are sharing our same experiences,” Angie Garner, mother of gold medalist Sairah Garner, said.

Garner was also grateful for the social opportunities the Special Olympics provided her daughter.

“It is extremely rewarding because she doesn’t have a whole lot of friends that she gets to see on a day-to-day basis, especially when she’s out of school,” Garner said. “So, when she gets to meet her friends, she gets to know them better and build that friendship year after year.”

Spivey was also excited about getting to meet new people.

“I had a good time. I did real good and I got to make new friends,” Spivey said.

Although the Special Olympics impact the athletes and those close to them in a major way, many of the volunteers also said they found the experience to be rewarding. “I volunteered last year and didn’t know what to expect. After being here last year and seeing what the kids and athletes are doing and the excitement that they have and the love they have to give, it pretty much sucks you in,” said Officer Duke Wiser of the Pelham Police Department. “You can’t help but to let it touch your heart. It really feels good to see the kids and see their competition. To see the love that they share with everyone is incredible.”

One of Wiser’s fellow law enforcement officials echoed those sentiments.

“The realization that not everybody is bad is amazing,” said Deputy Chief Bob Copas of the Homewood Police Department. “In police work, we mainly deal with the bad people. But when you’re out here with these athletes, it’s a whole different way of looking at the world. These people enjoy life, and they appreciate us as law enforcement officers.”

Copas is in his ninth year of working with the Special Olympics and his third year of working at the state games.

“I saw there was a need for us to help people here. It just seemed like a good thing to do,” Copas said.

Even though most agreed the Special Olympics are a feel-good type of event, the athletic prowess of the athletes is not to be taken lightly. “The effort of the athletes is comparable to any other athlete in any other kind of competition. That desire to win and desire to do their best is amazing,” said Bill Specht, Special Olympics County Coordinator for Baldwin County. “These athletes do a lot of things that I know for a fact I can’t do.”

While everyone seemed to be having a good time at the games, the event would not be possible without months of preparation by Troy.

“It takes quite a bit of preparation. It takes probably about 3 to 4 months of pre-planning and planning,” said Troy Dean of Student Services Herbert Reeves. “We have to meet with the folks at Special Olympics. Then, of course, there are lots of things to be done the week of the event.”

Many agreed the effort put into the games by both the university and the city paid off quite nicely.

“Troy University just puts so much into it and the city does too. You see community leaders come in and take part in the weekend,” Welch said. “Then with Troy University, you see things going up in the middle of the week and they have activities planned. They just do so much for the weekend.” Copas was also pleased with Troy’s handling of the games. “Troy does an excellent job. Troy is fantastic and they’re well-organized. They’ve handled everything well. They’ve given us transportation, and we’ve been well taken care of,” Copas said. “The campus is beautiful, the facilities are first class and the athletes seem to really like it here.”

Jackson, for one, does like having the games at Troy and is already turning his attention to next year.

“I’m planning on coming back next year and competing in even more events,” Jackson said.

Garner found her family’s time during their first year with Special Olympics to be so enjoyable she said she plans on bringing Sairah back next year. Wiser is even planning on partnering with a Special Olympics athlete in golf events in the near future.

Roberts said the Pike County team is planning a family day for Aug. 15 so anyone who might be interested in participating in next year’s games can come out and get more information about Special Olympics.

Reeves was also looking ahead to next year. “If Special Olympics wishes to come back, we are going to work with them,” Reeves said.

Click here for photos from the Special Olympics events on Friday and Saturday.