The University of Charleston’s Laidley Field was a meeting place for Special Olympics athletes and volunteers from all over West Virginia Saturday.
The arena hosted track and field and bocce, with aquatics, tennis and other events held across Charleston.
Special Olympics take place across the country for children and adults with disabilities.
Olympic Village, next to the stadium on Charleston’s East End, was filled with music, crafts and games on the sunny Saturday afternoon. Award ceremonies took place throughout the day.
Eric Williams, 39, took first place in the 200-yard dash Saturday morning.
“I’ve been doing Special Olympics ever since grade school,” he said. “I like meeting new people. The event itself is enjoyable.”
John Corbett, the CEO of Special Olympics West Virginia, said this is the Olympics’ ninth year in Charleston, but the state has had some form of games for more than 40 years.
“We draw athletes from all over the state — from 29 or 30 counties,” Corbett said. “We’re trying to give as many opportunities as possible, because, after all, that’s what we’re here for.”
The number of volunteers rivaled the number of athletes. Members of the West Virginia National Guard played a behind-the-scenes role in logistics, members of the West Virginia University swimming and diving team came out, and so did kids’ classmates and teachers.
“My first start was as a volunteer in high school,” Corbett said. “It’s something that will touch your heart and move you.”
Corbett now has a paid position with the Special Olympics, and has worked to make games year-round. There are winter games and games at the local level.
“I think everyone has a vested interest in seeing competitions year-round,” he said.
Capt. James Coffey, of the West Virginia National Guard, said that members of the National Guard have been helping out at the state games for about four years. He said it’s a positive way to give back to the community, different from the role they often play, helping out after natural disasters.
Coffey said their behind-the-scenes work includes making sure there’s enough water and meals. They also set up the dance for Saturday evening at the Charleston Armory, he said.
“It’s one of the big events we do in the summer,” he said. “A lot of guys schedule vacations and training around for this. Whatever they need, we’re here to do.”
He added: “We’re not out here doing a military operation; we’re out here doing community work.”
Anna Hartley, a teacher at Lenore K-8 School in Mingo County, brought six athletes to this weekend’s games. She said she’s been coming for 22 years.
“Kids can see that there’s something different and meet different people,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the first time they’re in a hotel and away from home.”
Carrie Messer, 13, was on Hartley’s team and competed in the tennis ball throw and 50 meter walk. She said she’s been participating for three years, but she likes the local competition because it’s closer to home. Still, Messer and other athletes agreed: “It’s fun.”
Select athletes from the state games will be chosen to travel to New Jersey for the Special Olympics USA Games from June 14-21.
The Special Olympics was started in the late 1950s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw that there were no competitions for those with disabilities. She soon began holding events in her back yard, and things took off from there, according to the Special Olympics website.
Shriver’s goal, according to Special Olympics, “was to learn what these children could do in sports and other activities — and not dwell on what they could not do.”
Events continue today with award ceremonies until noon.
Reach Jack Suntrup at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5100.