First Posted: 1/15/2009
PEMBROKE -- Ronald Spain jumped up and down, smiling as bright as the unobstructed sun shimmering above Big Mo Stadium at Purnell Swett High School.
With a blue ribbon dangling from his neck, the Lumberton High School student pointed to his mouth. By winning the 25-meter dash at the 29th Robeson County Special Olympics on Wednesday, he'd also earned an ice-cream cone.
Spain's enthusiasm was indicative of the mood surrounding the event.
“It's very heart-warming to me to see these kids come out here and do this,” said Ronnie Chavis, athletics director for the Public Schools of Robeson County. “Basically, when they come, they're not concerned about winning and losing, they're just concerned about being able to participate. They just love the competition. It's gratifying to see that.”
About 400 students from schools around the county participated in the games Wednesday. The events included track and field, bocce, softball and tennis.
Paulette Baldwin, public relations chairman for the county Special Olympics steering committee, said there's always a large crowd to watch the events.
“We were actually expecting more,” Baldwin said. “We had a few schools that didn't participate this year for one reason or another. But the weather's been wonderful.”
Because of the threat of rain, the Olympics' opening ceremony was held in the school's gymnasium. After Purnell Swett's Shon Vanderhall ran through the gym, symbolically carrying a torch, Betty Bridgers, the Olympics' local coordinator and a member of the state board, was presented an $1,800 check from Outer Banks' director of research and development, Ed Leggett.
Addressing the gym full of athletes and sponsors, Keith Fishburne, president of the Special Olympics of North Carolina, said, “Betty Bridgers ought to be a household name in Robeson County.”
Fishburne lauded Bridgers' efforts through all 29 years the event has been held in Robeson County. She has directed the local games for the last 13 years.
“They do a good job here; it's a great turnout,” Fishburne said after the opening ceremony. “I'm very impressed with the amount of support of the volunteers. It's definitely a community effort.”
Fishburne said the county's Special Olympics was one of the first in the state this year. He said the local games feed into a series of “area games” and that some athletes -- “not necessarily just the winners” -- will get an opportunity to go on to the area games. The state Summer Games will be May 31 in Raleigh.
Later, Bridgers was coordinating the efforts of a group of ROTC students and periodically addressing the crowd with a wireless microphone. As a cluster of people watched a red balloon sail off and disappear somewhere southeast of the sun, Bridgers spoke of the games' importance.
“The Special Olympics have really helped children and athletes who might not have had an opportunity to speak and do other things,” she said. “There's a lot of hidden talent that you get a chance to see. There are so many sports they get a chance to participate in. It can be personalized or a team sport -- learning to cooperate with a team or learning your own personal best.
“This is what I look forward to, making sure that our athletes get a chance to participate in a sport set aside, not to see who's the best in the world, but to see what they can do as an individual.”
But the non-competitive nature of the games didn't prevent a little trash-talking between Charles Foxworth and Donnie Locklear, his Purnell Swett classmate, before the 50-meter dash.
“I'm going to win,” said Foxworth, who is 19 and lives in Red Springs. “I've been training hard at home. I go out and run about a mile over at the park by my house. I don't believe in losing.”
But the 17-year-old Locklear wouldn't hear it.
“I'm the one who's going to win,” said Locklear, who also lives in Red Springs. “I'm originally from Germany. I train every year. When I was in Germany, I did the Olympics for five years. I already got the gold medal and the silver one.”
Eventually, Foxworth changed the subject, saying he was also going to participate in the softball throw and standing long jump.
In the end, Ingram Sinclair of Lumberton Junior High School would win the 50-meter race by about 30 feet, his white sweat socks a blur as his running shoes scorched the black top.
After the race, a group of his friends came by to congratulate him.
“You tore them up,” said one.
Seemingly humbled by his victory, Sinclair merely shrugged. Asked by a stranger if he trained hard for the event, he smiled shyly and said, “Yes, sir.”
With that, Sinclair was off to the medal stand, smiling wide as he went.