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    Accent on ability

    Special Olympians enjoy a blue-ribbon day of competition.

    By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 10, 2002

    TAMPA -- Sitting in his wheelchair and staring at a field of sand before him, Special Olympian William Hadley swung his left hand and heaved the shot put into the air.

    A crowd of volunteers and supporters surrounded him, clapping and yelling: "Come on William! Go William, go! You can do it!"

    Hadley, 18, of Mulberry, eventually hurled the metal ball 4 meters and earned a first-place blue ribbon during the Area 8 Special Olympics Summer Games Saturday at the University of South Florida.

    He was the event's sole competitor in his age group.

    "It took a lot out of me," said Hadley, who wore a smile that wouldn't fade along with a red second-place ribbon from an earlier wheelchair race.

    "I love the Games," he said on his way to the awards ceremony. "You get to go to new places and see new things. And I love the competition."

    Hadley was one of about 650 mentally and physically disabled athletes from Hillsborough, Polk and Highlands counties who competed in the annual Games.

    "It gives the athletes an opportunity to show their skills," said Laurie Chmielewski, the event's coordinator. "Here, it's all about them."

    Some first-place finishers will get a chance to compete in the state Games, which are scheduled for April 26-27 in Tampa.

    Just like the Olympics, these Games have opening ceremonies marked by a parade of athletes and a torch relay. There also is an Olympic Village, featuring food and entertainment.

    But unlike other sporting events, many of the athletes are just as happy for their opponents' victories as for their own.

    Gaither High School freshman Nicole Rose Lewis, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, didn't mind being the runner-up in the girl's softball throw. Her competitor beat her by less than a foot, but she still raised her arms in victory.

    "She's just happy to be here," said her mother, Jennifer Lewis of Tampa. "Everybody wins, and that's what she likes."

    About 700 volunteers helped the athletes through the events, which included track and field, cycling, soccer, volleyball and tennis.

    It was often hard to tell who was having a better time, the athletes or the volunteers.

    In the track and field awards area, Steve Hall and other members of the Tampa volunteer group the Rough Riders wrapped ribbons and beads around the necks of the athletes whether they finished first or fifth.

    "We're the cheering section," he said. "We get to give them the big 'Yeahs!' We don't care what place they come in."

    "Just to see them smile," said volunteer Lyn Baldwin. "That's what's extra, extra special."

    -- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or

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