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A special day full of winners

"There's no losers here," says an athlete's mom at the Special Olympics Summer Games.

Published February 23, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - Eight-year-old Billy Fox wasn't supposed to be able to walk, never mind tear up a soccer field.

Hailey Burrus, 5, wasn't supposed to be here at all.

But there they were, two miracle kids chasing a soccer ball on a grassy field during the Pasco Special Olympics Summer Games held Thursday at River Ridge Middle/High School.

"He's really good at sports," said Billy's older brother, J.J. Naclerio, cheering from the sidelines. "I'm really proud of him."

Stories of fortitude, hope and perseverance are plentiful at the Special Olympics, where it really doesn't matter what color of ribbon you come away with as long as you have fun. Hailey and Billy were just two of the 755 athletes - both disabled and nondisabled - who competed in cycling, soccer, track, bocce and the tennis ball throw.

The games began with the typical opening ceremonies that included the reciting of the Special Olympics oath led by former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, Katrina Reedy of Hudson High School and Jimmy Teixera of Gulf Middle School.

"You couldn't ask for a more perfect day," said summer games coordinator Valerie Lundin, who was equally upbeat about this year's rise in athlete numbers.

"We're up by 100 from last year," she said. Lundin accepted a donation of more than $17,000 from the Heritage Springs Homeowners Association that would help fund training and travel expenses for regional and state games.

"People are getting to know Special Olympics," she said. "Parents are obviously getting involved. We're providing a program for more athletes."

Athletes like Billy, who was playing for the Cotee River Elementary Bolts soccer team. He was born with craniostenosis, a condition where the plates of the skull fuse prematurely, causing deformities and other problems such as mild cerebral palsy, scoliosis and optic nerve damage, which makes him legally blind.

Even so, he's a bundle of energy who loves to play basketball, soccer and flag football.

Having a kid with special needs changes your perspective, said Billy's mom, Vanessa, who shares the No. 1 cheerleading spot with her husband, Bill Fox Sr. That's probably why she ended up working as a paraprofessional in a TMH (Trainable Mentally Handicapped) classroom at Cotee River; and why Billy's nondisabled siblings participate in the event. Valarie, 10, plays soccer, and J.J. volunteers.

"Watching him play is so emotional in a good way," said Mrs. Fox. "We never thought in a million years that he'd be able to play."

As for Hailey, she was sporting a No. 3 on the back of her white Moon Lake Elementary Lakers T-shirt. She was born with a congenital heart defect and underwent surgery at the age of 2 months. It was touch and go for a while, but despite being developmentally delayed - she has the mental capacity of a 2-year-old - Hailey's doing okay now, said her mom, Carla Burrus.

"It's amazing because she ... shouldn't have lived," said Mrs. Burrus as she snapped pictures from the sidelines with her Nikon digital camera and confessed to having no idea what the score was.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Everybody wins. There's no losers here."

[Last modified February 23, 2007, 15:49:03]

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