James Torres was front and center as the parade of athletes completed their lap around the track. The 14-year-old Wesley Chapel High School freshman, who helped hold the school banner, made sure to wave to his family amid the camera flashes and cheers.
"I see James!" squealed his sister, Abigail Torres, a third-grader at Wesley Chapel Elementary School, as she snapped pictures Friday of the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics.
"He's like a really fun friend to hang out with," Abigail explained. "He's mostly like the best brother you could have."
James, who was diagnosed with autism when he was nearly 3 years old, has been participating in Special Olympics since his family moved to the area from New York in 2010. He regularly participates in Special Olympics basketball, bowling and cycling. On Friday, James took fourth place in the 1K cycling race and was the only athlete to compete in the 5K cycling race, taking first place with a time of 20 minutes and 42 seconds.
Asked if he was excited to ride his bike in front of the cheering crowds, he answered simply, "Let it rip."
James' mother, Rosa Torres, describes him as an avid videogamer and a ladies' man, whose No. 1 hobby, aside from music, is participating in Special Olympics.
"I love Special Olympics for giving my son and all of the special needs community the opportunity to shine," Rosa Torres said. "It's a great opportunity for them to be able to show their talents and show all of their abilities, as opposed to their disabilities."
Wesley Chapel High School hosted the games on Friday for competitors in central and east Pasco, a day after the west Pasco games were held at River Ridge High School. The Wesley Chapel High School Wildcat and the Kia hamster danced and posed for pictures with participants and spectators, as nearly 400 athletes competed in track and field, cycling, bocce ball, team soccer, soccer skills and tennis.
Michael Tost, 22, was participating for his last time in the Special Olympics Summer Games as a Wesley Chapel High School student, though he plans to continue participating as a member of Learning Your Function Inc., a special needs advocacy group.
Michael was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old. He has spent 10 years at Wesley Chapel High, which has a program that helps special needs students from middle-school-age to their early 20s. Michael was one of the torch carriers in this year's summer games, and his awards included a fourth place win in the 1K cycling race.
Because Special Olympics is a unified program, individuals without disabilities — oftentimes siblings and friends — are able to participate alongside those who have special needs.
"It has definitely helped (Michael) a lot socially," said Michael's mother, Renee Rodriguez. "I've had servers in restaurants recognize him, and cashiers." She said such programs teach kids at a young age to accept and celebrate people's differences.
Michael's aunt, Laura Conley, has seen Special Olympics participants get their first birthday party invitations as a result of participating in the unified program.
"They don't really make friends the way that typical kids make friends," Conley said. "It's important and they do a lot at the schools to try to make sure that they get to develop a relationship with the typical kids."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.