Some 40 faces full of joy were the stars of the show Saturday morning during the the 2015 Special Olympics at Charlotte Amalie High School on St. Thomas.
The Special Olympians streamed into CAHS while, halfway across town, the Law Enforcement Torch Run kicked off the games. Traffic slowed temporarily as more than 20 police cadets carried the Special Olympics torch from the Coast Guard Station at Waterfront, down Veteran’s Drive, made a turn toward Barbel’s Plaza and onward to CAHS.
The Law Enforcement Torch Run, done on St. Thomas for the first time Saturday, is one of the world’s biggest fundraisers for the Special Olympics movement. Locally, police cadets pay an entry fee of $250 to join the run, which, according to St. Thomas Police Deputy Chief Sandra Colbourn, is on top of other support local law enforcement gives toward Special Olympics throughout the year.
“There’s a net of maybe $5 million dollars that the law enforcement agency helps and donates to this particular cause, because it’s a great cause,” said Colbourn. “We have some really courageous young people out there with good and strong hearts, so why not?”
When the cadets reached the CAHS track, they handed the torch over to Special Olympian Leon Descortes, who said he “felt good” leading all of the participants and their supporters around the track for an introductory lap.
Then the games began, held simultaneously throughout the field. The matches are always fair and equal, according to Special Olympics organizer Janice Lee. The games were split into male and female categories, which were then broken down into age groups.
“Then if you have whole big group of people, we would divide them by ability, what their times are and everything else, so they have fair and equal competition,” said Lee in the middle of yelling encouragements at a passing group of runners.
The participants rotated among the games, which included track, long jump, tennis, basketball, and softball throw. Those who have difficulty gripping a softball the games also have tennis ball throw. Participants in wheelchairs also sped across the track, pushed by enthusiastic volunteers and cheered on by loud supporters from the sidelines.
Rita Henderson, who first joined the Special Olympics last year, said she really enjoyed playing in four categories this year. When asked which games she excelled in, she said, “I think the long jump, but they’re all OK.”
Henderson placed second in the adults’ long jump, but she, like many of the athletes, did not focus much on winning.
Some athletes power-walked their way to the finish line one step at a time while clinging to a volunteer, while others walked, instead of jumped, in the long jump category. Regardless of performance, all the athletes got resounding pats on the back, firm hugs and hearty congratulations after every game they finished. They beamed back at their supporters in return.
“And we’re big on the awards,” said Lee. “Everybody who competes get a reward.”
The winners get gold, silver and bronze medals, said Lee, while the rest gets ribbons all the way down to eighth place.
“Even if they didn’t score, if they didn’t make eighth place, for example, they still get a green ribbon, so everybody gets something,” she said.
According to Lee, the Special Olympics committee opted out of the territorial games this year. They wanted to save enough money to send participants to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Games. The territory, she said, has always sent athletes to the World Games, except to the 2007 games in China because of limitations in how many athletes can represent the Virgin Islands.
Funding for the World Games delegation comes from donations from individuals, government grants, and fundraisers such as the Torch Run, according to Lee, and they could still use some help in getting their athletes to Los Angeles in July.
Special Olympics volunteer Archie Jennings said the Special Olympics has made a great deal of difference since the school system began the games in the territory around 1969.
“It brings the community together to give praise and encouragement to children with disabilities, and adults with disabilities, and it’s a good community event for all concerned,” said Jennings.