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... And he's off

He loves his computer, his dog, his family, friends. And he loves competing. A 19-year-old will fly for the first time to plant his capable feet at the Special Olympics National Games ...

By ROBBYN MITCHELL
Published July 2, 2006


GULFPORT

Sports and competition have been a welcome part of Louis McClanahan's life for as long as he can remember. They just weren't always as welcoming to him.

"He used to play baseball with the other kids, but he got picked on," said Jim Fox, Louis' stepfather. "Their attitudes toward him were just mean."

Louis was an outcast in his elementary school because he is a slow learner, a fact that kept him from playing games with the other children.

But now Louis is a star.

His parents credit the 19-year-old's transformation to his current school, Nina Harris in Pinellas Park, which caters to special-needs students.

Well loved and popular, Louis is on the Safety Patrol, escorting students from buses to their classrooms. He has played every sport except tennis.

"I'm going to play that one in the fall," he joked.

The school helped Louis get involved with Special Olympics, where he has won so many medals that he has lost count.

Today marks his highest achievement yet, when he heads to Iowa to represent Florida in the 2006 Special Olympics National Games, tonight through Friday.

In a first, Special Olympics International is hosting four summer competitions around the world to give athletes the opportunity to travel and compete between Olympic ceremonies.

For these games, officials took the names of gold medalists for every participating state and did a lottery drawing to form state delegations, Fox said.

Louis' family planned to take him to Orlando this morning to catch a plane to Ames, Iowa, with his teammates and new coaches. It will be his first time on a plane.

"I'm nervous because pretty much I'm one of those people who doesn't like looking down on heights," Louis said.

His mother, Bonnie, isn't concerned about his safety during his trip. She said that officials require the kids to wear an ID badge at all times and schedule every minute of their days, from breakfast to bedtime.

More than 80 athletes and 19 coaches will represent Florida at nationals. Louis and 20-year-old tennis player Russell Hawkins will represent Pinellas County.

Louis will run the 100- and 200-meter races and the 4x100 meter relay. His favorite event is the 100-meter, because it's not that long.

"But you do better in the 200," his mother countered. "I think it didn't register with him that he's going to nationals. It's all just fun to him."

The relay race will be his most difficult, he said. He has met with only one of his four teammates, and they are not set to train together until they reach Ames.

But Louis is sure he will gel with the team immediately.

"I've been practicing the baton with my coach," he said. "I did the relay before when I was younger."

Louis will also have to bond with a new coach at the games. His coach, Sue Porter, will not be attending the games because of the recent loss of her mother.

"Sue worked really hard with him," Bonnie said. "But he's on his own now."

Then again, Louis spends a good deal of his free time on his own. Inline skating and disassembling computers rank high on his list of hobbies. He recently graduated from high school and loves to hang out with his friends. He spends countless hours on the computer in his room, which is cluttered with video games, recently worn clothing and long-forgotten toys.

During the day, Louis works at the St. Anthony's Hospital cafeteria, where he keeps condiments stocked and clean trays and silverware available. At night, he trains.

His best friend isn't much of a talker.

"I love Dippity. Yes I do," he cooed at his Dalmatian, which a neighbor gave him when he first moved into his home. "He's company when I need it, and he knows the good from the bad, so he can keep the bad people away."

The family spends time together riding motorcycles. Louis rides on the back of Fox's Harley. He still hasn't gotten over the fact that his mother has her own.

"I mean, girls just don't ride that much. It's weird," said Louis, who plans to get his own bike one day.

The family also likes boating, where Louis earned the nickname "Capt. Zig Zag."

"When we're out on the water, he had the bad habit of driving toward whatever he looked at, which wasn't always right in front of him," his mother teased.

Focus is not a problem for Louis on the track.

To qualify for the first national competition, he ran the 200-meter for Florida in 35.67 seconds and the 100-meter in 16.38 seconds.

In nationals, he is looking for gold to add to the collection near the front door of his Gulfport home. There's the bronze he won for basketball, the gold he won in track, and the silver and bronze for bowling.

Sitting between Dippity and Bonnie on the living room sofa recently, Louis was looking forward to staying with the other athletes in the Iowa State University dormitory. Bonnie and Jim were feeling the separation anxiety already.

"You're going to go there and have fun without us, kid," Fox said to Louis.

"Yeah, you're leaving your poor mom and dad all alone for the whole time," Mom chimed in.

"I can't help it. I'm so famous," Louis said.

After the games, Louis will continue attending Nina Harris until he's 22. Then he wants to go to school to work on computers while working at St. Anthony's.

Most of all, Louis wants to live his life like his role model, Chuck Norris, as Walker, Texas Ranger.

"He always goes and helps people," Louis said, smiling. "He always finds the person who did it, and that's what a good person does."

[Last modified July 1, 2006, 11:54:01]


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