Fifth-grader Heidi Palmer pedals mightily around the track, determined to finish what she has begun. A forceful wind whips around her as she rounds the bend on her three-wheel bike, but still she smiles.
This is the first time Heidi has competed in the Special Olympics. Last year, she could only watch as her big sister Katie competed in the event. "I think she might even beat Katie's time," says her father, William, filming his daughter as he sits in his wheelchair. "She's been wanting to do this for a long time. Just look at her go!"
Heidi is still smiling when she returns to her wheelchair and sits next to her father. Katie leans against her listening as an interpreter signs her father's forthcoming praise. "You did great," he says, tousling Heidi's hair. "It's hard, pedaling against that wind."
Although his daughters were born with multiple handicaps, William received his at the hands of a drunken driver. Some days are tough for him, his wife, Cathy and their two daughters, but they often find the courage they need in each other.
"It's a little unusual to have three handicapped people in one family," he said, "But, we're all an encouragement to each other. Some days I'm down, and they're there to pick me up. And they get a kick out of the fact that they can go faster than their dad in the wheelchair or run faster than their dad."
The Special Olympics also helps boost their spirits. It is a time for those with disabilities to jump far, throw a ball, pedal a bike or run as fast as they can. As the Special Olympics creed says, it is a time to win or at least be brave in the attempt.
There were 480 competitors, ages 5 to 65, in the spring Special Olympics at River Ridge High School on Thursday. Those who placed first or second in the various events are headed for district competition in March at the University of South Florida or in April in New Port Richey.
A large number of volunteers also participated. Students from Land O'Lakes High School, Hudson High School, Zephyrhills High School, Pasco Hernando Community College and St. Anthony's School showed up to lend a hand along with other members of the community, said Special Olympics coordinator Valerie Lundin.
Fred and Rita Mendat came out to cheer on their son, Rory, as he competed in team soccer. Rory has competed in the Special Olympics for 11 years. "These games are great," Mrs. Mendat said, "Rory enjoys being in it. These type of children can't compete in "normal' sporting events like other children. Their skills are just a little slower. But they learn a lot here _ sportsmanship, following instructions and the sports of America."
River Ridge Diversified Cooperative Training student Rachel Talbot, painted her face and was a volunteer clown for the day, handing out balloons or hugging one of the mentally handicapped children. Rachel works part time at the Angelous House, with mentally impaired children. "I really like it," she said, "It's what I want to do. These kids appreciate it so much _ it's worth it just to see the expressions on their faces."
Rachel Fenske , a pupil at Cypress Elementary School, said she was enjoying her time in the Olympic Village, an area set aside for fun during breaks between competitions. It was a place to play carnival games, have your hand painted with rainbows or balloons, eat free popcorn or cupcakes and hang out with a few friendly clowns, McGruff the dog or the Crash Dummies. "I've been here before _ last year," said Rachel, "It's pretty cool. I'm going to run today. I've been practicing a lot."
Andrew Bloom also was ready to compete in the long jump and the 100-meter dash. "I'm going to run till I'm tired," he said, "and don't look back."