Special Olympics competition draws more than 1,000 athletes to Kutztown University

May 4—More than 1,000 eastern Pennsylvania athletes competed Saturday at Kutztown University during the Special Olympics largest sectional event of the year.

The children and adults who took part represented about one-third of the state, including Berks County, and received support from about 400 coaches and volunteers.

They competed in swimming, track and field, basketball, golf, softball and tennis.

Most of the participants had trained for months for the event, their happiness evident on Saturday and their dedication paying off as they received cheers and support from their teammates throughout the day.

They were also competing for a chance to qualify for the Special Olympics Summer Games, a statewide competition held at Penn State University in June.

After the opening ceremonies were carried out at KU's Andre Reed Stadium, the athletes got started at events across campus.

Among them was Jared Jablonski of Exeter Township, who was there to pitch on the Berks contingent's softball team.

Now 38, he's been in Special Olympics events since he was first eligible as an eight-year-old, and he also bowls in the winter sectional and plays soccer in the fall.

"It's fun. And I get to make a lot of new friends," he said.

His favorite memory of Special Olympics is the time he hit a grand slam in softball to the delight of his teammates, he said.

Jablonski's passion for Special Olympics, and his return year after year, is typical of the athletes, said Julie Benjamin, executive director of the Greater Lehigh Valley and Pocono Region.

She mentioned the event's oldest participant, a 76-year-old swimmer who last year won a gold medal.

"It all speaks to the power of Special Olympics," Benjamin said. "It speaks to the joy and camaraderie they experience, and also the life skills they develop."

Because Special Olympics Pennsylvania breaks its sports into three seasons, it provides year-round training in 21 sports total for 13,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities or closely related developmental disabilities.

"Sports is a universal language," said Larkin Richards, spokeswoman for Special Olympics Pennsylvania.

"No matter our skill level, we all love to play our best and be included on sports teams."

And the Special Olympics athletes really enjoy playing hard, she said.

"It's a very competitive thing, just like other competitions," she said. "There are a lot of smiles and happiness, but there are a lot of blood, sweat and tears too. They spend a lot of time training, and they want to perfect their skills."

Those skills go far beyond their speed on the track or in the swimming pool, said Matt Aaron, president and CEO of Special Olympics Pennsylvania.

They also include teamwork, leadership, fitness, discipline, confidence, and the courage it takes to compete, he said.

Felicia Shumard, 29, of Muhlenberg Township, was looking forward to the skills competitions in basketball she said as she warmed up.

"You get to dribble, you get to pass, you get to play with your friends, and you get to be part of a team," she said.

The dances she attends as part of Special Olympics are also a lot of fun, she said.

Henry Evans III, 19, of Exeter Township was also warming up to compete in basketball and bowling, accompanied by his mother, Heather Evans, who coaches him.

The fact that Henry's peers in Special Olympics fully accept him is such an important benefit of the program, she said.

"They (the athletes) all have different abilities and disabilities, but they all accept each other for who they are," she said. "It's great."