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They run and jump for joy

At first, I bristled.

I had agreed eagerly when a friend asked me if I would like to help coach a volleyball team for the county's Special Olympics program. But I was noticeably ill at ease when, within minutes of my arrival and introduction, one of my new acquaintances put her arms around my waist.

No one had told me hugs were a part of the training regimen.

But then, why would they need to warn me? Seems like sorry commentary that my first reaction was sinister: "Why is this person touching me? She doesn't even know me." What I didn't understand at the time was that Lisa had no reason to think I wouldn't be delighted with a hug.

She always is.

For Lisa and most of the other two dozen athletes who competed Saturday in the Citrus County Special Olympics, success is measured not in times or scores or medals, but merely accomplishment. And the reward for a job well done is a heartfelt hug more valuable than money.

By the end of our six weeks together, the volleyball skills of the half-dozen athletes who signed up for the sport's inaugural season in the local program were still somewhat suspect. But I was a champion hugger.

At the competition Saturday at Citrus High, I watched athletes finish the 100-yard dash and look not to see if they had crossed first or for their times, but for the open arms of the person holding the stopwatch at the end of the lane.

My eyes teared nearly every time.

And it was only the first event of the day. Still to come were the 50-meter dash, wheelchair slalom, softball throw, broad jump, soccer exhibition, cycling, and, finally, volleyball.

The county's Special Olympics meet, coordinated painstakingly by Julie and Butch Keiper and an army of volunteers, is not run in track-meet fashion with all events going on at once. Participation, not efficiency, is the primary goal.

For these athletes, most of whom get the chance to compete only twice a year, there is no reason to rush. Rather, such celebrations are to be savored.

And I savored it with them.

I couldn't help it.

Their smiles made me smile. Their high-fives made me feel like a winner.

I felt good about myself for volunteering, all the while secure with the knowledge that when the day's activities were complete, my job would be done. But for parents and guardians, the responsibility is never-ending.

Before I offered to sacrifice what amounted to only an hour once a week and four hours out of my Saturday, I knew little about Special Olympics, and even less about the Olympians. I shamefully had to ask Julie Keiper what qualified someone as a Special Olympian. The now politically incorrect term "mental retardation" was my answer.

And it's not a condition they will outgrow. I was tormented to learn that some of the athletes I had been encouraging with phrases like "that-a-girl" were actually 10 years my senior.

As it would anyone, my six-week experience sent me on a course of introspection, from the casual certainty with which I attend softball practice each weekend to the frightening prospect of never knowing what tomorrow might bring.

But two thoughts echoed through my mind as I watched Saturday's celebration.

I was thankful that whatever force guides our lives, it is gracious enough to allow the Special Olympians I met last weekend to live joyfully, to greet each new day, person and challenge with smiles on their faces.

And thankful, too, that something so simple as a hug could make someone feel special. Myself included.