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Pasco athletes test their mettle, get star treatment at Special Olympics

WESLEY CHAPEL

Jonathan Leon grinned big as someone pinned a red second-place ribbon on his yellow T-shirt.

"My friend won, too," he said, referring to competitor Landon Bevell, 6, who scored a blue ribbon in the 25-meter dash on Friday at Wesley Chapel High School.

The pair exchanged hugs and high fives immediately after the race, which Landon won by a couple of steps.

Welcome to Special Olympics, where athletes are just as thrilled for the person who beat them as they are for themselves. Where trying and succeeding are equally celebrated. Where each competitor goes home with a ribbon and everyone is made to feel, well, special.

Like Jacob Sievert, who attends Stewart Middle School. A small crowd clapped and cheered as the 11-year-old hobbled toward the finish line of his race.

"He couldn't even sit up until he was about 4 years old," said his dad, Gabriel Sievert. Jacob was born with cerebral palsy and other health issues. He walks now but sometimes uses a stroller.

Years of physical therapy and special education have helped him make great improvements, his parents said.

"It's amazing what these teachers can do," said Marie Newell, a substitute teacher at Wesley Chapel High. She was escorting student Shane Allen, 21, to his events.

Shane, who has Down syndrome, has competed in numerous Special Olympics over the years. Wearing a blue sun visor and strands of plastic beads, he enjoyed rock star status as he mingled with the crowds.

His mother works in the Wesley Chapel High cafeteria, "so everybody knows him," Newell said.

Shane could hardly contain his enthusiasm as the bands played.

"He wouldn't stop dancing," said Newell, as Shane mugged for photos with female classmates. "He'd rather dance than eat."

Behind the stadium, volunteers set up an Olympic Village on the basketball courts that included carnival games and face painting. The Saint Leo University men's basketball team showed up in uniform to engage the kids on the court.

Nearby, athletes saw how far they could throw a tennis ball.

"Great job!" said Watergrass Elementary teacher Laura Beth Pascorella as her student, 9-year-old Nadia Fernandez, got a blue ribbon to show for her 5-foot toss.

Nadia, wearing hot pink sneakers and a dark ponytail, smiled as she enjoyed her first Special Olympics.

Volunteers say seeing the kids celebrate is worth all the effort that goes into coordinating the games.

"The kids get to really shine," said Clara Craig, assistant principal at New River Elementary School. "This is their day."

Valerie Lundin praised the warm sunny weather that made Friday's east Pasco event successful. Rain and temperatures that didn't climb past the low 60s on Thursday forced organizers to postpone the west side games until a week later.

"We hope the power of positive thinking will keep the rain away," she said.

Lundin, who has helped coordinate the games since 1984, has seen a lot of changes over the past three decades. About four years ago, the games were split by geography to accommodate the participants.

"We started out with about 175 athletes," she said. "Now we're up to over 1,000."

Participants in the Pasco games are offered the opportunity to compete in regional games. Some get to attend the state games, which are held at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

Every four years, Special Olympics hosts a world competition. The next one is set to take place next year in Los Angeles.

Pasco has sent athletes to the world games. Mitchell High graduate Michael Tuason earned two gold medals in Greece in 2010.

It's the state games at Disney that draws the most interest on Friday.

"They all want that weekend away," Lundin said.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie can be reached at buietimeswriter@gmail.com or (813) 909-4604.

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: Liam Monahan, who carried the torch during the Special Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, is 18. A photo caption listed an incorrect age.

Pasco athletes test their mettle, get star treatment at Special Olympics 02/28/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 4:48pm]
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