WESLEY CHAPEL — Josh Coleman was prepared to smoke the competition as he gripped the wheels at the starting line.
"Ready. Set …" and then he was off in a flash, racing down the track and across the finish line to take the first-place ribbon in the 50-meter wheelchair race held Tuesday at the Pasco County Special Olympics Summer Games.
No doubt the kid is in good shape.
Coleman, 21, who attends Moore-Mickens Education Center in Dade City, was born with spina bifida and has hip dysplasia. He said he could have opted to race using his usual ride — a motorized wheelchair — but he would have none of that.
"I've got strong muscles. I keep up my strength," he said, noting that his training bouts entail daily treks with his dog around his neighborhood.
Winning was great — especially now that Coleman is headed off to regional, and perhaps state, competition. But it's not necessarily the best thing about the games.
"It's just a great day," he said, after sharing a hug with Geri Perchard, his former teacher at Pine View Middle School. "You get to have fun and have a good time, you get to be with your friends and you get to see people you haven't seen in a long time."
That kind of sentiment was repeated throughout the day by athletes, parents and volunteers.
There's Paxton Casella, 12, who has cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired.
He was pumped to be part of the torch run representing Denham Oaks Elementary, assisted by his coach Deborah Smith and cheered on by a passel of family members.
"He doesn't care what place he gets, as long as the ribbons are red," said his mom, Christine Casella. "This is his day."
"Everyone has such a great time," said Lauren Goldsworthy, 15, a student from Sunlake High School who has been volunteering at the games for five years along with David Roth, 16, and Hali Lindsay, 15. "It's great, just to see the enjoyment in the athletes' faces when they compete. They're so excited just to be here."
"Life is so good," said Cindy Narring, as she snapped pictures of her daughter, Emma Forman, 15, who was marching in the athletes parade with fellow Pine View Middle competitors during the opening ceremonies. "Just look at these kids. These kids make everybody's day. They're our gift every day."
About 375 athletes came out to enjoy some fun in the sun while competing Tuesday on the fields at Wesley Chapel High School. Events included bocci, soccer, soccer skills, track, cycling and tennis. An additional 675 athletes from west Pasco are scheduled to compete in similar events on Thursday at River Ridge High School.
Hosting two separate competitions is a first for the county summer games, which traditionally have been held on one day at the River Ridge site. But the program has been growing steadily over the years, said Val Lundin, who coordinates the county games with Judy Brunner.
That's a good "problem" to have, but with more than 1,000 athletes competing in summer games, organizers needed another site to accommodate the athletes and volunteers and better handle transportation. It also was a boon for parents, many of whom could not make it to the games on the other side of the county.
"Some of our kids weren't getting back to their school till after dark. It was a long day for them," Lundin said. "I think this is great for the local community and the parents to have it here, too — to have them involved. We hope it will grow from here."
No doubt it will, to accommodate the old-timers such as Melanie Schuknecht, 21, who was competing in the county games wheelchair race for the last time as a student from Moore-Mickens Education Center (but could be back as an adult competitor), and newcomers such as 5-year-old Morgan Roy from Sanders Memorial Elementary, who was competing in her very first Special Olympics.
Morgan, who has cerebral palsy, was so excited after racing down the track using a special gait trainer that she wouldn't stop. She zoomed back and forth with her dad, Robert Roy, as her mother, Brenda Halpin, looked on taking home movies.
"This is great. She's having such a blast," a giggling Halpin said, as she watched her daughter go. "This is her first time, but I doubt it will be her last."