There was a time when John Worley could keep up with his boys. They'd run together and as Worley slowed with age, his twin boys, Mark and Bruce, kept on running, accelerating out of the back of the pack, striding on to Special Olympics Maryland medals and into manhood.
It's been a while since those days, twelve years now. And as Mark and Bruce train for another Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games, John has taken on what he calls more of a "transportation and inspiration" role.
Sure, John will take a break from coaching his sons and the other Howard County long-distance runners to jog a lap with them around the track. But, then he's liable to be teased back at the starting line by a fellow coach, as he was at Wednesday's practice at Oakland Mills.
"I saw you two slow up so [John] could keep up with you!"
The Worleys, now 26 years old, were 14 the last time they could run with their father without slowing. That was in 2000, the same year Mark started competing in Special Olympics. Bruce joined a year later.
On Saturday, each will join about 1,400 other athletes in the 42nd Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games held at Towson and Coppin State Universities. The organization provides year-round training and competition for people eight years and older with intellectual disabilities, like Mark and Bruce.
Early in their Special Olympics competition, the twins would also run in weekly events with the Howard County Junior Striders and with their Wilde Lake High School team, where they languished toward the back of the pack.
"In high school when we first started out we were one of the slower runners on the team," Mark said. "We were trying to push hard to get better as the year went on. And we wanted to work harder to improve and get better."
Special Olympics helped with that. For the Summer Games, each county in Maryland holds twice-a-week practices for 10-to-12 weeks. The Worleys were able to train for events like the 5,000, 3,000 and 1,500-meter races. Other athletes ran in middle distance or sprint races and also practiced the shot put and javelin.
The Worleys trained with Special Olympics, and independently an average of three additional times per week. As their legs began to grow, their times shrunk.
Soon, both were competing for, and winning, gold medals in middle and long-distance events, where by rule, they were entered in a lottery with other gold medalists to choose which athlete advances to the next level of competition.
In 2003, Mark's name was pulled, and he flew with Team USA to Ireland for the Special Olympics World Games. There, he met up with the rest of his family, swapped stories with athletes from all over the world and ultimately earned a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter race.
The Worleys blossomed as runners during their time in Special Olympics, and they've kept on running. Both have competed in multiple marathons and other mainstream events. The ability for the Worleys to be recognized just like a mainstream runner is at the heart of the Special Olympics mission.
Special Olympics founder "Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics to have our athletes be seen as athletes first and then perhaps athletes with intellectual disabilities second," said Jason Schriml, Vice President of Communications and Brand Management for Special Olympics Maryland.
The impetus for Special Olympics began in Maryland in 1960 at what was known as "Camp Shriver," a place for people with intellectual disabilities to play and compete.
Today, Special Olympics is an international organization in 220 countries that trains athletes in a variety of sports. Special Olympics Maryland holds seven major competitions per year, including the Summer Games, which begin Friday, the Winter Games, the Spring Classic and a series of fall events.
The Summer Games features competitions in five main areas: athletics (or track and field), aquatics, bocce, softball and cheerleading. About 1,400 athletes will compete, with the support of 1,600 volunteers, many of whom put in countless hours throughout the year.
"Just to see how thrilled they are that people are there supporting them and that we're out there cheering them on for whatever they do, I think they definitely go the extra mile whenever they have that kind of support," said Terry Waters, who volunteers through his employer, Coca-Cola, Special Olympics' founding partner. "You know it's all worthwhile when you see it in their faces"
In fact, it's that support that Bruce lists as his favorite aspect of Special Olympics.
"It's quite happy to have people you know and some people you don't know that are cheering," he said. "It makes you do that extra step."
Mark and Bruce, like all Special Olympics Maryland athletes in this weekend's event, have completed the two county events required to qualify. On Wednesday, the last practice before Saturday's competition, John bounds up and down the home straightaway, barking out encouragement and advice to three of the four athletes on the 4x400-meter relay (one was absent) who practice baton passes.
"Try shuffling your feet," John suggested. "Then you drive your elbow forward to power into the stride."
Mark and Bruce run in a pair, and though their running styles differ slightly — Mark churns his entire body more while Bruce's strides appear longer — little separates the two. The twins say they've always been neck-and-neck, in races and in life. When Mark joined Special Olympics, Bruce did too. When Bruce got a job at Howard County General Hospital, Mark did, too.
"If he speeds up, I speed up," Bruce said. "It's so close."
Mark — runner, hospital worker and World Games bronze medalist — speeds up down the final straightaway, and Bruce gives chase. The two younger runners wait on the starting line for the baton.
With a shuffle and a drive of the elbow, the runners, Thomas Logue and Jessie Carico, take off, and though this is just baton practice and they're not supposed to go more than a few meters, they keep on running. They round the turn and they're still going, and not even the amused shouts of John can bring them back as they take flight down the backstretch.
"Hey," John said with a shrug. "That's a good thing."
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