By Konstantine Fekos
WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP —
The courage to compete made victory complete for at least two of several hundred area athletes participating in the 39th annual Crawford County Special Olympics spring track and field meet at the Crawford County Fairgrounds on Wednesday morning.
This year’s theme, “Victory is Doing the Best You Can,” was apparent on banners representing more than 360 competitors enjoying hours of outdoor activities, including long jumps, javelin throws and distance running and walking.
“My favorite is running,” said competitor Cody Hubert of Titusville, who was selected to carry the torch during the opening ceremonies alongside fellow competitor and friend Kyle Miller of Hartstown.
Hubert could be seen jogging in preparation for the 100-meter dash/walk, which he ran with Miller, grinning all the way to second place. The two came to a photo finish with Miller taking home the first-place blue ribbon.
“They work at Vallonia (Industries),” said Bonnie Hubert, Cody’s mother and Titusville’s representative for the Crawford County Special Olympics management team. “Cody’s been competing a long time — eight or nine years. This is Kyle’s second year.”
The dynamic duo, dubbed “best buds” by volunteers and fellow athletes, were inseparable even after the race, walking down the sidelines to high-five their adoring fans.
Amidst the crowd of congratulations and camera flashes stood Tanner Hollabaugh of Maplewood High School, winner of the 2013 Danny Zirkle Spirit Award, given in commemoration of the late 2008 Special Olympics Hall of Famer and loyal competitor.
“Our Spirit Award winner for 2013 is a school-aged athlete that helps out at practices and does his best to encourage others to do their best in the sport they are learning,” said Donna Johnson, public relations director for the county’s Special Olympics management team. “He always cheers for everyone competing with him and tries his best in all his events.”
The spirit of fellowship was apparent with competitors laughing amicably and cheering one another on while spectating their respective events.
“Everybody gets all excited,” said Diane Albaugh of The Arc of Crawford County. “It’s really awesome.”
The Arc was one of 17 participating schools and support agencies, some of which came from Erie and Venango counties, including Erie Homes for Children and Adults and Riverview Intermediate Unit 6.
“We’ve been picking up some agencies outside Crawford County for the past few years,” said Heather Clancy-Young, chief executive officer of Meadville Area Federal Credit Union and returning event emcee. “It’s nice to be able to outreach to them.”
Young was also pleased with this year’s turnout, often affected by the day’s weather forecast.
“We’ll see fewer people if the forecast calls for rain,” she said. “Today’s good weather was a major plus. Everything ran smoothly.”
“We’ve only been rained out twice in 39 years,” said Carol Caler, Crawford County Manager for the Special Olympics. “The odds are against us, but miraculously we get through it.”
Caler noted that while athlete participation fluctuates between 300 and 400 on average, the number of schools and participating agencies has increased and financial support has risen in the past few years.
Not only has the event continued successfully as a result, she said, but the Crawford County Management Team has been able to work toward statewide Special Olympics programs designed to help train athletes prior to 8 years old, the qualifying age for competition.
Whether 8 or 80, athletes of all ages turn out to enjoy the event, according to Denise Hart, program coordinator for Child to Family Connections.
“Our athletes just loved it; it’s the highlight of our year,” she said. “A lot of people put a lot of work into this.”
The average annual turnout usually prompts a considerable community response, ranging from high school volunteers to adult business leaders.
“One of the most rewarding things I see comes through our consistent volunteers from the community and businesses,” Young said. “The athletes recognize us because we’ve been doing this for so many years. It’s rewarding to watch them finish events and see how happy they are.”
Special Olympics coordinators are always looking for additional volunteers, whether on or off the field, Johnson said.
“There is a need for more volunteers for the Crawford County Management Team,” Johnson said. “There is need for coaches, assistant coaches and a new manager, track and field coordinator and public relations coordinator. We hope you will consider sharing your strengths and abilities with the athletes and their families.”
“This is very important to them,” Young said. “This is their day.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.