This is Special Olympics

John Iniego surges ahead on his way to winning the gold medal Saturday in the 5K race during the 2013 Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games at Stocker Stadium. The 42-year-old Gunnison man was excited by the victory and said his hard work practicing on Tuesdays and Fridays helped him prepare.

His pace was steady and his focus was firm. John Iniego had practiced for this. Dreamed of this day.

He cruised across the finish line in first place in the 5K race. The 42-year-old Gunnison man caught his breath and drank water, all the time smiling in sun-soaked Stocker Stadium.

“I won,” he says, still smiling. “I ran a lot, I practiced a lot. I practiced every Tuesday and Friday.”

With every lap around the track, the huge crowd roared in cheers and applause.

“They kept me going. They cheered me on and I cheered back,” he says.

This is Special Olympics.

Then Iniego’s teammate from Gunnison’s 6 Points team, Jeff Crawley, crossed the finish line and gulped water.

Crawley is loud and boisterous, and happy and proud. He gives Iniego a big bear hug.

“It’s really challenging,” he says about the 5K. Later in the day, Crawley, 34, competed in the shot put and Iniego was there to cheer him on.

The 6 Points coaches gathered the 5K team to pose for photos.

Smiles all around.

This is Special Olympics.

“It was way more emotional than I thought it would be,” coach Eric Barker says about the opening ceremony and 5K competition.

Then his voice cracks.

“They work so hard. John got his personal record today. The work and dedication that he put in …”

Barker’s voice trails off, as he tries to harness his emotions.

“They don’t look at it as winning or losing, they just want to do their best,” Barker says.

Coach Chris Formichella is proud, too.

“They cheer each other on, that’s what they care about. It’s like a family,” he says.

This is Special Olympics.

“Go Bekah! Go Bekah!” coach Sarah Mair screams almost loud enough for the folks back home in Buena Vista to hear as Bekah Wingo hustles down the track in the 100 meters.

In between screams, Mair furiously snaps photos of a massive smile pasted on her face.

“This is so great, to see the smiles and how happy everyone is, is just so great,” Mair says.

This is Special Olympics.

Volunteer Madison Higgins is 18 years old and just wanted to come out and be part of the Summer Games.

The recent Central High School graduate gathers up a group of athletes and escorts them to get their ribbons.

Patient, smiling, helpful and respectful, she congratulates each one and listens as they excitedly talk about their races.

“It’s emotional,” she says. “I have a little cousin with Down syndrome, so this hits close to home.”

This is Special Olympics.

Volunteers of all ages, genders, shapes and sizes, all clad in bright green T-shirts, skitter around the venue. Each with a task, each supremely conscientious and respectful.

Each one serves a mandatory function. Each one is a pure volunteer. They want to be here, they want to help, and they are all moved by the experience.

For Meghann Barney, a recent CMU graduate at 36, this was her first Special Olympics.

Like virtually everyone else, she was smiling. Smiling is contagious at Special Olympics.

“I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s even more (fulfilling) than I expected,” she says. “I’ve almost been in tears like three times already.”

Tears and smiles go hand in hand. Pride joins in.

This is Special Olympics.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run, with every region of Special Olympics of Colorado represented with an athlete brought the crowd to their feet. With law enforcement vehicles lining more than half of the Stocker Stadium running track, each Special Olympics athlete ran or walked with a member of law enforcement.

The torch run started on May 11 and traveled more than 600 miles.

Then the torch was passed to 14-year-old Justin Jolley from the Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos from Garfield County, and Colorado State Patrol Captain Matt Ozanic for the final leg. Justin and Ozanic then took the stage and together they lit the flame of the 2013 Colorado Summer Games.

“This was a great experience,” Ozanic says. “It’s one of the great experiences of my life.”

This is Special Olympics.

In the stands, Kent Jolley, who was raised on a ranch just outside New Castle, cheered and applauded as his son came around the track with the torch.

“I didn’t even know that was going to happen. Our coaches are just amazing,” he says.

It was an emotional day for Dad. “It was a very proud moment, I got a little choked up.”

This is Special Olympics.

Special Olympics is about community and the community came out in force to support these hard-working athletes.

As the teams filed in during the opening ceremonies, members of the Grand Junction Gladiators, clad in their purple and white football uniforms, lined up and high-fived the athletes as they came into the stadium.

“We want to show that we are part of the community,” Gladiators quarterback Dustin Benton says. “This is very humbling and emotional.”

Later in the afternoon, members of the CMU rugby team — Sarah Witmer, Samantha Miller, Shannan Russo, Mackenzie Lewis and her brother and coach Randy Lewis — came out to show their support.

Using letters made by local middle-school students, the fivesome spelled out the five words for the words for Special Olympics — “Unity, Respect, Acceptance, Inclusion, Friendship” — and flashed them to the crowd.

Those words are what this weekend is all about.

This is Special Olympics.

Special Olympics leave an impression with all, but the spotlight remains where it should — on the athletes.

Athletes share high-fives and hugs, they wave to family in the stands, they congratulate one another at the finish line or after a soccer goal or after climbing from the pool, and they smile and smile some more.

Sheena Atkinson just finished first in her 100-meter race, very proud of her accomplishment. She worked hard for this first place.

She points to her chin, an injury. She will have a little scar after it heals completely.

“I got five stitches,” she says, explaining that she fell during practice this week.

It’s 10 minutes after her race and her smile has yet to fade.

Few smiles have faded on this the first day of the 2013 Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games.

This weekend is about all the hard work, dedication and commitment that these athletes have put in to prepare. This weekend is about fun and joy and the spirit of competition, and maybe mostly the power of the human spirit.

This is Special Olympics.


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