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Everyday Olympians share friendship, fun

Orlando Rivera was winding up for his last mighty throw when the words of encouragement came from the crowd that had gathered around him.

"Okay, Orlando," yelled an enthusiastic Rick Smith. "Throw the next one to Disney World."

The fluorescent green tennis ball wasn't lobbed quite that far, but the measured distance was more than enough to land the 9-year-old a first-place ribbon in the Tennis Ball Throw.

"Who knew you could throw that well? Did you know?' " asked Smith, 56.

Orlando, a Special Olympics athlete from Sanders Elementary School, didn't say a word, but offered instead a very firm and serious nod to Smith, a volunteer who had come out to cheer the Sanders team on. Then Orlando went off to collect his blue ribbon and even more kudos at the awards table.

Orlando was one of 689 athletes from 28 schools and two adult agencies to participate in the Pasco County 2006 Summer Special Olympic Games held Thursday at River Ridge Middle/High School.

Participants in the Pasco games will be eligible to play in the Area Special Olympics on March 4 at Lakewood High School in Pinellas County and March 25 at Mitchell Park in New Port Richey. First-place winners in area games will be eligible to compete at the State Special Olympic Games held April 28 to 30 at the University of South Florida.

Also in attendance Thursday at the Games were Sheriff Bob White, school superintendent Heather Fiorentino and some 500 volunteers, including students from Land O'Lakes, River Ridge, Mitchell and Zephyrhills high schools and people from the community.

Co-director Valerie Lundin, who coordinated the Games along with River Ridge faculty members Idele Kelly, Amy Ashworth and Pam St. Mary, was hoping for good weather and wasn't at all surprised that she would get her wish.

"These kids have a special kind of power," she said.

Indeed.

Over at the soccer field, 14-year-old Matt Ross, who is autistic, was declaring himself "unstoppable" as he scored four of the five goals that helped his Mitchell High soccer team win their first soccer match of the day against Pine View Middle School.

On the sidelines a few fields over was a somewhat emotional Kim Luis, 36, snapping picture after picture as she watched her 10-year-old son Judah play soccer for Northwest Elementary School in his first Special Olympic Games.

"I called my husband in tears during the (athlete) parade for the Opening Ceremonies," Luis said. "I didn't know what to expect.

"These kids, they're just so excited," said Luis, who with her husband, Victor, adopted Judah when he was 5 years old. "They have so much fun with it. Judah tells me, "It's just a game.' It's okay if they don't win."

Winning is certainly a good thing, but fun is definitely the top priority during an event that produces fast friendships, high fives all around and smiles galore from athletes and spectators alike.

Hudson High soccer player Matthew Quinn, 21, said he was having an "awesome time," as he sipped a grape snow cone and danced in the Olympic Village on the basketball courts with teammate, 16-year-old Amie Slade. While others played games at the 30 game booths staffed by student volunteers, these two were circled by an enthusiastic crowd who were wowed by their moves.

Bryan Weaver, 16, who competed in track events for Ridgewood High, also drew an enthusiastic crowd, while he mouth-drummed to the music of "Rock A Capella" at the DJ booth.

Bryan's mom, Maggie Covar, 44, watched from the sidelines.

"He brought his own CD and everything," Covar said. "He lives for this day."

So do some of the volunteers - and even one beauty queen.

"I'm having so much fun. This is my third Special Olympics," said River Ridge High volunteer, 15-year-old Molly Dodd. "'It's just nice to see everyone getting together and forgetting about our differences. Everyone knows this is all about the athletes. It's good to see that."

"I come every year," said Sal Iacona, 76, a volunteer representing Pasco-Hernando Community College. "I love to see the kids have fun, love to see them laugh."

Opening Ceremonies guest speaker Shannon Schambeau, who was recently crowned Miss District of Columbia, is a Pasco High and Saint Leo University graduate who now works for Special Olympics International headquarters in Washington, D.C. The fourth-generation Dade City native said she was more than happy to help out with the Pasco games when she was contacted by Lundin.

"It couldn't be a more perfect year to come back," said Schambeau, 25, adding that she volunteered at her first Special Olympic Games, then held at Land O'Lakes High School, 14 years ago.

"God blessed us with a wonderful day," Schambeau said. "There are a lot of blessings and a lot of miracles coming today."

NOTE: Volunteers are needed for future Special Olympic Game events. To help out, call Valerie Lundin at (727) 774-3062.

GOING THE DISTANCE

I'm Sprung by T-Pain outside River Ridge Middle/High School in New Port Richey on Thursday. More than 600 athletes from 28 schools and two adult agencies competed in the Games.

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