Special Olympians ready to take the field

Published 11:39 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Team Pike County is gearing up for the 2012 Special Olympics Alabama state games to be played at Troy University this week.

The team has grown from three athletes competing in the games in 2007 to 25 competing this year.

“It is really beyond words. It’s grown, and not just within the school systems,” said Meredith Welch who heads the local team.

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In 2007, athletes in Pike County competed in their first local games. There were 15 participants then. This year, there are 57.

Welch said she became involved with the games because her son, Joey, 22, is special needs.

“It gives him a way to interact with other people and to feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he wins or loses,” Welch said.

Joey competes as a swimmer in the games and when he first began, he entered a 10-meter assisted swim category. Now, thanks to his hard work and support from coaches who helped train him, he now competes in unassisted backstroke and freestyle competitions.

“Everything is a win,” Welch said. “It gives him that sense of accomplishment.”

While Joey is the only local swimmer in the state games, there are 20 registered for track and field and four competing in golf.

Chris Baldwin, 17, is competing in track and field and it’s his first year.

“It’s fun, new friends,” is what Chris said he likes about the Special Olympics. He said he also expects to do well.

“I’m excited. He’s excited,” said Lucrecia Baldwin, Chris’ mother.

Lucrecia explained that her son is autistic and is enrolled at Charles Henderson High School. She said she wanted to help boost his confidence with the games.

“I think he’s going to do well,” Lucrecia said. “He puts his all into everything he does.”

Drew Harden, 18, from Goshen, is also in track and field categories because he loves to run.

“This is something he can excel at and, of course, Mama gets to cheer,” said Donie Harden about her son competing.

Enrolling her son in the games for the last several years was an easy decision for Donie, especially after she experienced her first competition.

“It does your heart good,” Donie said. “When you see all of these kids all the way up to adults work so hard, you are blessed by the time the weekend is over.”

Blake Ellis, 19, has been competing in the games about five years. His sport of choice is golf.

Blake graduated from CHHS and said that the games are fun.

When he’s asked if he’s going to win, he responds politely, but confidently, “Yes, ma’am. I hope so.”

Blake’s mother Myra Ellis said she thought the Special Olympics would be a good opportunity for her son to interact with others who are overcoming the same challenges. Blake has Downs syndrome.

“We are all about giving him more opportunities,” Myra said. “And this is what this is. It is an opportunity for him to shine.”

Preston Rhodes, 16, is on the golf team at Pike Liberal Arts School and he’s volunteering with the Special Olympics for the first time this year. “It’s something I enjoy,” Rhodes shared. “I enjoy watching the kids get excited. It’s very special to be a part of that, and really do something that matters.”

Although it’s too late to volunteer at the state games with the local team, Welch said Troy University always needs extra hands and suggested people in Pike County call the Student Services office at the Troy campus to see how they can help.

“You won’t be sorry. It’s just an overall sense of happiness. No matter what you do, you are going to finish your day with a smile because these athletes don’t know a bad day,” Welch said. “It’s a different world for them.”

The opening ceremonies for the 2012 Special Olympics Alabama begin at 7 p.m. Friday with a parade of athletes into Veterans Memorial Stadium at Troy University. Prior to that, law enforcement officers will carry a torch down Brundidge Street from the police station and travel along University Avenue before the opening ceremony.