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Smiles, seriousness mingle at Special Olympics

Competitors have been preparing since returning from Christmas break. Participating gives them a sense of pride.

By MATTHEW WAITE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Rocking back and forth, left foot to right foot and back again, Josh Geraghty looked down at the starting line in front of him.

[Times photos: Janel Schroeder]
Mark Holland, 6, winds up at the sponge toss sponsored by the Air Force ROTC.
He had been training for this race. He was set to run hard to glory.

There are differences between Geraghty and the Olympic sprinters on TV. And there are things that aren't different at all.

"I always want to run," the 17-year-old said.

Racers get nervous. Muscles tense. Toes dig into the soles of shoes, scratching for just that much more traction for the inevitable start of the competition. They bounce from leg to leg, like Geraghty.

The starting gun makes everyone twitch, runner and spectator alike. Olympic sprinters bolt like panicked horses at the sound of the gun.

Not Geraghty. He looked to his peer helper with a look of "May I run now?" A nod later, he was off.

Unlike the world's fastest, Geraghty runs with a smile on his face normally reserved for the parents of newborns.

Where he finishes doesn't matter. He's running. Thursday was the Special Olympics summer games for Pasco County, something Geraghty had been looking forward to since Christmas.

photo
Sean Moore, 7, takes aim at the soccer goal during the Special Olympics summer games at River Ridge High School on Thursday. More than 600 competed.
His stiff-legged run comes from the braces underneath his socks, which are pulled up to his knees. The effort he puts into the strides rivals that of any sprinter. And on the sides of the track at River Ridge High School are his teammates, yelling as loud as they can, "GO JOSH, GO!"

"I've been practicing really hard," Geraghty said, his red second-place ribbon safety-pinned to the powder blue Wesley Chapel High School basketball jersey he wore.

His coach, Wesley Chapel adaptive physical education teacher Kristi Frye, said Geraghty and the rest of the team have been practicing since they came back from Christmas break. They practice starting, staying in the lanes of the track and running all the way to the finish.

"He tries so hard," she said of Geraghty. "They all try so hard.

"They know what it means to win, and they don't want to lose."

More than 600 of Pasco County's special education students competed in Thursday's Special Olympics summer games, with more than 200 volunteers, teachers and teachers' aides getting racers to races. Most of the volunteers are high school students who give up their day to run alongside the track cheering on racers.

And there are parents, too, such as Rose Covar of Port Richey, who took three hours off from work to see her 11-year-old son, Bryan Weaver, run his way into second place in a later race.

"I wanted to win. I really wanted to win," said Weaver, a student at Richey Elementary School. "It was a blast."

Jenney Maraman, a 16-year-old from Wesley Chapel High School, said she dreams of being a singer, making lots of money and buying a house and a car. She likes school because she likes "being smart."

But on Thursday, she wanted to do one thing: run. "I ran all the way down there, 20 miles per hour" she said, pointing to the finish line 50 yards down the track.

Cheryl Salgueiro, the school district's supervisor for exceptional student education, said the teachers who plan the event will start dealing with next year's games just a few months after these games are done.

But Thursday was a day for the competitors.

"They're proud as they can be just to compete," Salgueiro said. "They just have the true spirit of winning and not being disappointed if they win or lose.

"It's just absolutely my favorite day of the year."

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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