NEW PORT RICHEY
Robbie Pugh dribbled the soccer ball down the field toward the open goal. He could have easily taken the shot and scored, but he passed the ball to teammate Leann Lengyl instead. Robbie is able-bodied; Leann is special needs. Together, they played soccer during the first day of Pasco's Special Olympics.
The athletic fields behind River Ridge High School exploded with bright blue T-shirts as Olympians and volunteers gathered for the games. About 650 students from west Pasco turned out for the annual event Thursday.
Another 350 from central and east Pasco were expected today at Wesley Chapel High School.
"Last year, it got so big, we had to split it in two events," said coordinator Valerie Lundin.
Fifteen schools in the county have Unified Partner programs, which have brought together able-bodied and special needs students for at least eight years.
"It's a really neat program and very popular in our schools," Lundin said.
Robbie, 11, a fifth-grader at Cotee River Elementary School, has been a unified partner for two years.
"I like doing it because I just have always liked helping people," he said.
Robbie and about 20 other students at Cotee River practice every Friday at their school and every Wednesday at Seven Springs Middle School. On weekends, they all travel to state games together.
"We look for kids that are positive role models," said Eileen DiBrizzi, who coaches the Unified Partners program at Cotee River. "These guys are team players."
Alex Kanos, 11, another Cotee River fifth-grader, has been in the program for four years and now helps coach the team. Two of his three siblings have Down syndrome.
"They can pretty much do all the same stuff that we can, they just have to learn it a different way to understand it more," Alex said of his special needs siblings and friends.
After an opening ceremonies parade and remarks from Pasco Sheriff Bob White and schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, the Cotee River students made their way from the track to the soccer fields.
Alex led his brother Eli, 9, by the hand. They were halfway there when Alex stopped to tie his shoe. Eli waited patiently as the other students passed them.
"All right," Alex said, standing up and reaching for Eli's hand. "Come on."
Pasco Olympians participated in wheelchair and assisted races, distance runs, soccer, tennis, boccie ball, cycling and volleyball.
Soccer teams were grouped by age. Seven of the 12 divisions had Unified Partners teams. Four special needs and two able-bodied athletes were allowed on the field for each team.
Cotee River fourth-grader Besmir Luma, a special needs student, played goalie for the first heat. Alex stood near the goal.
"When the ball comes down here, you gotta watch it, okay?" he said to Besmir.
Seconds later, players barreled toward Besmir, who stood waiting in the goal.
"Block it! Block it!" Alex shouted, and Besmir kept the ball out of the goal.
After a few more heats, Robbie took to the field. Like Alex, he encouraged his special needs teammates and made sure they were included in the game. He said he sees more similarities between himself and the Special Olympians than differences.
"The difference is their disabilities, which really don't hold them back," he said. "They always try their hardest."