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Bulls up to bat for international Olympic games

Ahmed Hicks steps to the plate and with a compact, powerful swing, rips the ball deep to left field. He digs for first, rounds the bases and sprints to the plate, beating the throw standing up for a home run. After three outs, Ahmed takes the mound. He studies the batter and delivers a high, arcing pitch that drops off the table and behind the plate _ strike one. Ahmed's next offering is tapped slowly to shortstopSheldon Pittman, who cleanly fields the ball and fires a bullet to Mark Williams at first to beat the runner by a step.

Typical play of a typically good softball team? Yes and no. Yes, these kids are good. No, they are not typical.

Ahmed, Sheldon and Mark are members of the Pasco Bulls, a team of mentally handicapped teen-agers who will represent Florida in the International Special Olympics July 19-27 in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.

The 15-member team, coached by Belinda Brown, an adaptive physical education teacher in East Pasco schools, is composed of educable mentally handicapped children who range in age from 12 to 19.

According to Judy Brunner, Pasco's Special Olympics coordinator, such children have IQs between 60 and 70, or fourth or fifth grade level. Normal IQ is 110.

"Talk to them and look at them and you would not think they are retarded or handicapped," Brunner said. "They can play competitively within their age group. Sure, they make their share of errors, but so does everyone."

"They are a little rough with the finer points, but they can turn the double play," Brown said.

Ahmed Hicks would be one of the main reasons. Ahmed, 16, was recently named Florida Special Olympics athlete of the year for 1990 for his accomplishments in track and field, basketball and softball, and for his positive attitude.

He also was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame's new Special Olympics section two weeks ago.

Ahmed is Pasco's captain and obvious leader. He is a compact bull of a boy with an engaging smile and a penchant toward talking to opposing batters from the mound. But it's all in good fun, he said.

"We work hard and try not to get mad at the other team," Ahmed said. "I just try to keep everyone together and have fun."

"Ahmed is an excellent person who has the most positive attitude," Brown said. "No one deserved those honors more than him. He always gives it everything he has. The other kids look up to him."

Except perhaps for Mark Williams, 15, who ragged on Ahmed for missing a ball during practice Saturday morning. "Man, that was right to you," Mark said. "What's the matter with YOU? Shoot."

Mark however, said Ahmed and the team will do fine in Minnesota. "We're going to show people from Pasco that we can be a team," he said.

Teammate Eric Rhymer, 15, added, "We fought hard to get there. We're one of the best teams. We'll keep fighting hard."

Brown said the trip to Minneapolis will be the first time most of her kids have been on plane.

"They asked if we were taking a bus like we usually do and I told them no, an airplane," Brown said. "They said, "Oh no, unh-uh.' So we took them on a field trip to the airport so they won't freak out when we go there next month.

"I can't wait to see their faces when we take off."

Brown also hopes she'll get the chance to see the look on Ahmed's face if she can arrange a meeting with Ahmed and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan has appeared at past International Special Olympics. Ahmed wears No. 23, the same as Michael, and he convinced his teammates they should be named after the team of his favorite player.

"Ahmed said he would be one happy person if he met Michael," Brown said. "If he's there, I promise I'll arrange it."

Like Michael J. on his team, Ahmed is Pasco's best player. He hits for power, driving the ball as far as the average adult might. On the mound, he exhibits good control and rarely throws a flat pitch.

But when people see how good Ahmed and his teammates are, they are surprised. Even shocked, Brown said, because of the stereotypes associated with Special Olympics.

"Certain perceptions are created by the Down's syndrome children that people see on TV," Brown said. "People think that's all there is to Special Olympics _ 50-yard dashes and softball throws where kids are rewarded with hugs and kisses.

"Special Olympics can and should accommodate all different levels. But the lower-skilled athletes, kids in wheelchairs, get all the attention.

"But the (educable mentally handicapped) kids are embarrassed by those perceptions. They have normal friends and lead in many ways normal lives. They don't want to be stereotyped. But they will always have to compete in Special Olympics, and they are proud of what they accomplish here."

Brown said the children are not mentally prepared to compete with normal children their age. She said the children often suffer from behavioral problems and must be coached and taught in a very structured environment.

That is not to say Brown's players are discipline problems. Quite the contrary, Brown said. She said the players are taught that they must behave to remain with the team. And the joy of competition far outweighs the alternative, Brown said.

"We are very strict, we keep a tight reign," Brown said. "I know these kids inside and out and I know how they need to be treated."

In fact, it was the Bulls' good behavior that prompted a state Special Olympics committee to choose them to represent Florida in the International Games, Brown said. While Pasco did win the state title last summer in the juniors (under-16) division, there were several other teams that won titles in other divisions that could have been selected.

"They did not want a team that merely won a state title," Brown said. "They wanted people who they knew would be good representatives of Florida."

The Florida Special Olympics program also named Brown state coach of the year for 1990 and cited Pasco for having the state's most well-developed team sports program.

The softball team is being rewarded.

"The kids are really special to me," Brown said. "They are great kids who always give me their best, and it is so rewarding to be with them.

"I will be proud of them. And so will Pasco County."

Pasco Special Olympics softball team

Name Age School Hometown

John Blanford 12 Pasco Elementary Lacoochee

Tony Camardo 15 Pine View Middle Land O'Lakes

Kenny Carriveau 16 Zephyrhills High Zephyrhills

Roston Emmanuel 15 Pasco Middle Lacoochee

Ahmed Hicks 16 Pasco High Dade City

John Leedy 19 Schwettman Vo-Tech New Port Richey

George Morris 18 Zephyrhills Zephyrhills

Carnell Pippins 13 Woodland Elementary Zephyrhills

Sheldon Pittman 15 Zephyrhills Zephyrhills

Eric Rhymer 15 Pine View Middle Land O'Lakes

Joe Smith 14 Pasco Middle Dade City

Annie Pearl Townsend 16 Pasco High Dade City

Sinclair Tucker 15 Pasco Middle Dade City

Mark Williams 15 Pasco Middle Dade City

Troy Williams 15 Pasco Middle Dade City

Coaches _ Belinda Brown (head), adaptive physical education teacher, East Pasco; Valarie Lundin, adaptive PE, New Port Richey; Nancy Manley, adaptive PE, New Port Richey; Donna Steen, educable mentally handicapped teacher, Pasco Elementary.