SPRING HILL — Tricia Markey's face beamed with pride as she pulled herself from the pool.
Raising her hands into the air to catch the shower of high fives from friends and fellow athletes, Tricia then went to her No. 1 admirer, who was waiting beneath the shade of an umbrella.
"I won, Mom, I won!" Tricia exclaimed.
"You sure did, baby," Claire Markey replied as she pulled her daughter into a bear hug.
Saturday's Special Olympics Aquatics Games at the Hernando Branch YMCA wasn't about who was the fastest swimmer. It never is. Rather, these water competitions are more about the camaraderie of spirit, where everyone gets a chance to shine.
"We've got a great group of athletes here," said Glenn Young, coordinator of Hernando County Special Olympics. "The aquatics competition in our area has grown quite a bit lately, and that's good to see. It's a wonderful exercise activity with a lot of benefit for someone no matter what their age is."
Saturday's aquatic games drew 26 athletes who took part in 25-meter and 50-meter freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke heat races, plus several categories of relays. The event was a warmup to next month's area games in Dunedin, where qualifiers will be chosen for the state Special Olympics games in October.
With 25 heats to run in the morning, a team of 18 coaches and volunteer helpers kept things running smoothly and efficiently. For the athletes, however, being part of the fanfare from cheering friends and family was what mattered most.
"Everybody cheers for you, and you cheer for everybody else," said a smiling Wayne Salvo, winner of the 50-meter backstroke competition. "We're all having fun here."
Many of the athletes have been in training weekly at the Y since April. The Special Olympics program, now in its 11th year in Hernando, offers athletes with disabilities year-round activities such as bocce, bowling and track and field.
Young said the program has been on the upswing in recent years, thanks to a core of dedicated volunteers who coach and help coordinate activities.
"It's been great," he said. "But we can always use more help."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.