Hours before the torch run and opening ceremony officially kicked off the Special Olympic Summer Games at Towson University on Friday evening, an event that encapsulates the spirit of the games was already well under way.
Inside the Towson Center, cheerleaders from all across the state were performing routines they've been perfecting for months for a vocal crowd of parents and competitors alike.
It was a showcase of what parent Jocelyn Gregg, of Middle River, believes is an ideal competitive environment.
"It's a fun weekend," she said before her children — Zachary Lengrand, 18, and Mackenzie Lengrand, 15 — competed in their seventh summer games Friday, June 8. "I just love how everybody comes together, and you get to see how much work they put into this."
Zachary and Mackenzie both cheered Friday. Zachary cheering with the Panthers and Mackenzie with a team called the Lyons — the non-traditional spelling is an homage to Russell Lyons, Gregg's brother, who coaches Baltimore County teams and got certified to coach for the Special Olympics after MacKenzie could no longer participate in a traditional cheerleading program.
"She was devastated," Gregg said. "I had to pull her off the regular cheerleading team. She wanted to cheer."
Mackenzie has been cheering since she was 3, and was held up in the air four times during her team's performance Friday.
She said she's still scared each time they lift her — but she also said their routine went well.
The sense of courage, sportsmanship and friendly competition is at the heart of the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games, which are continuing through Sunday at Towson University, with some events held at the Cockeysville Senior Center and also at Coppin State University.
Some 1,400 athletes from around the state are taking part, with 800 volunteers on hand to help run the event.
The university is playing host to the games, but the streets of Towson greeted the athletes first on Friday with the Flame of Hope torch run that ran from the County Courthouse to the university. Like the athletes themselves, the flame was brought to Towson from legs around the state.
On Friday, to kick off the event, the university hosted a pep rally at the university's Auburn House Pavilion, followed by an opening ceremony, 7:30-8:45 p.m., at the Towson Center.
Kimmie Meissner, figure skating champion, was slated to serve as co-host of the ceremonies, with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco addressing athletes via video.
During the weekend competitions, athletes are competing in Aquatic events, track and field, bocce, cheerleading and softball.
Residents are invited to join the festivities and the celebration — all events are open and free of charge.
The schedule for the rest of the weekend — all subject to change — includes:
• Aquatics — at Burdick Hall Pool, Towson University, Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.-noon.
• Athletics (track and field) — Coppin State University, Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
• Bocce — Varsity Soccer Field, Towson University, Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
• Softball — Towson Varsity Softball Field, Burdick Field and Cockeysville Senior Center, Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
On Saturday, there will also be an Olympic Park gathering, 6 to 10 p.m. on the University Union Patio, with a Victory Dance included
Closing ceremonies will be Sunday, June 10, at each sports venue (times vary). For more information about the games, go to http://www.somd.org or call 410-242-1515 Ext 118.
As an athlete, Mackenzie Lengrand said her favorite part of the weekend is making new friends, something her mother says is sometimes missing in traditional competitive cheerleading.
"They don't have any hatred in their hearts," Jocelyn Gregg said of the Special Olympics athletes. "They walk up to each other and hug. At softball, one boy, C.J., spots Zachary from a mile away and gives him a big hug.
"Even though it's a year apart, they remember each other," she said. "They can't wait for the year to come to see their friends again."