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Athletes want hugs before medals

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Cheers of encouragement rang from the stadium as the athletes sprinted toward the finish line Saturday morning.

After completing the 100 meters, the runners forgot to check their times. Instead, they looked for their hugs.

Standing at the finish line, the timers, coaches and other athletes yelled for the competitors not to slow down. Then as the competitors crossed the finish line, they stopped cheering and stood ready with their arms wide and smiles on their faces.

The recording of the each athlete's official race time would have to wait until after the hugs were given out.

Special Olympics athletes competed at Citrus High School in events such as the 100 meter dash, the softball throw and the wheelchair slalom race.

"It's a wonderful experience for them," said Julie Keiper, who coordinates the Special Olympics program with her husband. "It's a success story."

For the athletes, success is measured in different ways. Some athletes run so fast, coaches had to enter against them to provide some competition. Others unable to run, raced their wheelchairs around orange cones to the sounds of a cheering crowd.

Unfortunately for the coaches, some of these special Olympians can run pretty fast.

Dawn Walker, a coach who is getting a degree in special education, raced against Olympian Shirley Watson. Out of breath, a panting Walker walked over to Watson and congratulated her on the race and gave her a hug. "You did great!" Walker said. "Just don't make me do it again."

Sometimes the athletes needed a little more than encouragement.

Matt Burke had just finished a sprinting race against his brother. He stopped and knelt by the side of the track. Julie Keiper saw him and stopped to talk to him. As she rubbed his back, she asked if he needed a drink of water or anything else.

"He had a very bad cough," Keiper said. "He couldn't make it to practice last week."

Then as the softball throw event began, the announcer called Matt's name. Matt jumped up and went over to compete.

"Bicycling is really the event he is waiting for," Keiper said. "He just humors us by doing the track and field stuff."