NEW PORT RICHEY
Richard Klepatski wheeled across the white chalk finish line and set off a celebration every bit as exciting to some as in a NASCAR victory lane. The 11-year-old boy with a perpetual smile had maneuvered his wheelchair for 10 difficult meters. Inches are milestones in a world of cerebral palsy. And when he won his race, Richard sat back and enjoyed whirling in circles, courtesy of Todd Hilkene.
"Spinning is something Richard has loved to do for a long time," said Hilkene, an exceptional student education teacher at Cotee River Elementary. "It's kind of the way I've motivated him."
Richard, rewarded with a blue first-place ribbon, was among 700 youth and adult athletes who came to River Ridge Middle/High School on Tuesday to compete in events such as bocce, cycling, soccer, tennis, track and volleyball at the Pasco County Special Olympic Summer Games.
"We're 700 strong, it's a beautiful day, what more can I say?" said Val Lundin, who serves as coordinator of the Pasco games along with Judy Brunner.
"Some of the athletes started as elementary students and now they're competing as adults," said Lundin, an adaptive physical education teacher at Cotee River Elementary who has been working these games for 25 years. "They motivate me to keep going."
The opening ceremonies featured a parade of athletes marching to the River Ridge High Band and a handful of local dignitaries riding in Corvettes. The torch lighting preceded a sad moment of silence for River Ridge Special Olympian Troy Keene, who died last week. Together, Greg Konrad, 20, the 2008 Special Olympics Athlete of the Year, and Kim Hoyt, the 2008 Coach of the Year, recited the Special Olympic Oath — "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
Millicent Wilson, 53, who has Down's Syndrome, came from Dade City with caretaker Lola Capehart to compete in the 50-meter walking race alongside Sandy Patterson, 48.
"I have a feeling I'm going to win," said Millicent, who was just as happy to come away in the end with a red ribbon.
"I think it's wonderful," said Sandy's mom, Murrel Dozier, 70. "The kids get so enthused. They just love it."
Olivia Holt, 13, who has a learning disability, demonstrated talent on the soccer field, where she excelled at defense and then cheered on her teammates from R.B. Stewart Middle School when her shift was done.
"I'll do anything to block, to stop a goal," she said. "I don't care if I trip, fall or break a leg."
"I love it," said Olivia of the games, noting her team was undefeated last year and made it to the state games. "It gives me something to look forward to. It's made me a better person. It's given me focus."
Alyssa Jolliff, 21, who has Retts Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects motor and verbal skills, earned kudos from her family for finishing the 10-meter wheelchair race.
This was Alyssa's second year competing, said her mom, Michele Masse.
The games, Masse said, worked wonders for her daughter, who, like a stroke victim, can understand what others are saying but cannot verbally express herself.
After competing in last year's games for the first time and coming home with first- and second-place ribbons, Alyssa grew more animated and her skills on a hand-operated communication board greatly improved.
"It's opened up doors of communication for her," Masse said. "We're just happy that she's getting a voice, even though it's not like our voice.