While they may not have been competing on a world stage, nearly 400 athletes filled Strider Field on Wednesday and put on a world-class show.
The Special Olympics, now in its 39th year in Chautauqua County, kicked off early Wednesday morning with a procession of athletes, their teachers and parents, and the Jefferson Middle School marching band around the track at Strider Field.
Following the procession, members of local law enforcement agencies including the Jamestown Police Department, New York State Police and Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office took to the field to present the torch that marked the beginning of the event. According to Capt. Bob Samuelson of the Jamestown Police Department, members of the various departments ran with the torch from Third Street near City Hall to Strider Field, much like the torch bearers run prior to the start of the Olympics.
"The Jamestown Police Department has been involved with the Special Olympics since its inception," said Samuelson. "This year we had a terrific turnout from the law enforcement in the area, so we're very happy about that. We're honored to be able to be here to support this terrific group and this organization. The officers try to get involved every year to participate, and they usually stick around afterwards for some of the games and events. Like I said, it's just a real privilege to be able to be here today."
This was followed by an award ceremony in recognition of the most improved athletes from every school. The ceremony was in memory of Katie Campbell Rexford, a special education teacher who was killed by a drunk driver, and was presented by Ms. Campbell's mother, Jane Campbell. Law enforcement officers helped to hand out medals to the improved athletes.
"We had roughly 380 students this year and 80 volunteers," said Bob Goold, coordinator of the event. "Frewsburg, Southwestern, Jamestown, Panama, Chautauqua Lake, Maple Grove, Salamanca, Clymer - they all send their kids here. The different schools all help run the same parts of the event every year, too. Southwestern always runs the standing long jump event, Panama runs an event, each school takes care of a portion of this - it all runs like clockwork once we get it going now. The high school kids with their chaperones basically run the event. Once we get everyone here they just do a great job."
In addition to the large number of volunteers who helped to make Wednesday's event possible, Jamestown Elks Lodge 263 donated and served lunches to student athletes, student volunteers and their families at Strider Field.
"We had more students participating this year than we have in the last couple of years," said Goold. "Salamanca was a new addition for us, and they brought in around 15 kids. Usually we're between 350 and 400 students, though. Years ago we averaged closer to 500 or 600 students, but that was because we had Fredonia and Dunkirk involved, too. Since then, they've started their own event, so they'll have about 250 kids at the State University of New York at Fredonia next week for this same type of event."
Students were able to compete in events like the running long jump, standing long jump, softball pitch and 50-meter dash. Goold, who has been involved with the Special Olympics for four decades, said that it has been great to be involved with the event for so long because of the positive impact that it can have on the lives of the children that participate.
"This is their big day," said Goold. "These kids wait all year for this. Out of the 380 kids that are here, the majority of them don't have the opportunity to participate in the 'regular' sports. They don't have the chance to play Little League. This day is all about them, and we want to make it as special as we can so that they have something to look forward to all year long."