Rod Fry’s 10-year-old son, Roman, loves playing sports — the athleticism, the energy burned, the friendships built.
The Wiltondale family started Roman playing sports with the Towson Recreation Council. But at 8 years old, more began to be asked of the young athletes. Roman, who was adopted from the Baltimore foster system, had attention deficits and other issues stemming from his background. Fry said the programs were beyond Roman’s capacity, and it was no longer fun for him.
But after two years, Roman still needed an outlet. Fry said the family decided to try Special Olympics. They started him with basketball, then moved to track and field; it proved the perfect fit.
“It’s really given him the opportunity to burn off some energy after a day of school, but also seek that competitive environment and make some friends … it’s been awesome,” Fry said.
An outlet, a place to belong, a place no one doubts you, that is what participants say Special Olympics offers. And the statewide Maryland Summer Games at Towson University last weekend, the largest event of the year, was its ultimate celebration.
During Saturday’s track and field competitions, teams of athletes from counties around Maryland sat together in the bleachers at Johnny Unitas Stadium. Underneath tents shielding them from the hot sun, athletes, parents, coaches and volunteers cheered on their teammates. Baltimore County’s team, dressed in purple jerseys, stood and roared as teammate after teammate scored medals in a series of 200-meter races.
“I’m gonna do it for y’all, I got y’all,” one athlete called out to his friends as he walked down the bleacher steps to his race.
About 1,500 athletes living with intellectual disabilities and 500 volunteers participated in this year’s summer games, said Special Olympics Maryland spokeswoman Kira Northrop. It was the event’s 49th year, and its 42nd at Towson University.
The goal, Northrop said is “to create communities of dignity and respect.”
“Sports is just a gateway to a community of inclusion,” Northrop said. “It is something everyone can have in common, because everyone loves to compete and play sports, and everyone deserves to be able to do that.”
The Summer Games, which took place between Friday and Sunday, included competitions in bocce, cheerleading, softball, swimming and track and field athletics, including sprints, walks, relays and wheelchair races.
The state-level games are open to anyone who has participated in two other qualifying events, Northrop said. Special Olympics teams are open to athletes of all ability levels, and the games include competitions designed for different levels of capability.
“I think everybody should participate,” said athlete Monique Matthews, 29, of Baltimore. “People put us in a bubble. They think people with disabilities can’t work or do sports. I hate that.”
Matthews, who competes on Baltimore County’s team, has been on the track and field team, which practices at the McDonough School in Owings Mills, since 2012. Her favorite race is the 100-meter sprint.
“It’s just the adrenaline rush of the gun,” Matthews said. “Here I go off, here we go, my heart’s going thump, thump, thump. That’s what I like about it.”
Baltimore County’s Special Olympics team has about 200 participants, including athletes, coaches and volunteers, said Joyce Powell, a Baltimore County Special Olympics area director and head of the Baltimore County delegation to the Summer Games. Athletes are as young as 8 and as old as in their 60s, with “everything in-between.”
Powell said that while the team is a sports-based program, that’s not all there is to it.
“I think the best part of the whole thing are the relationships that form,” said Powell, who is also a special education teacher at Reisterstown Elementary School. “A lot of our athletes and a lot of their families, they don’t have the same opportunities for socialization that we take for granted.”
Kirsten Surak, of Lutherville, was at the Summer Games on Saturday to cheer on her son, Ryan, 22. She said Special Olympics has given the young man, who has the genetic disorder Fragile X Syndrome, a chance to play sports he could not otherwise participate in and a way to build lasting friendships. Today, Surak said, “he doesn’t want to sit with mom, he wants to be in the thick of it with his buddies.
“He’s found a place where he’s just right at home and it’s his,” Surak said.
Surak said that over the 10 years her son has participated, she, too, has found community through Special Olympics, making “close, lifelong friends” with other parents of children with special needs.
“We really become a family,” Powell said. “Through the athletes that come back year after year, and the coaches that come back year after year, it truly is a family.”
The Baltimore County team is also a place where athletes learn new skills, both athletic and life, Powell said.
Athletes have to check in at each biweekly practice so they can be taught communication skills, Powell said. There are behavioral lessons, too, she said, noting that one athlete arrived more than three hours late.
“Sometimes you have to be the bad guy … and that’s also life skills,” Powell said. “One of the keys is that having a disability does not give you an excuse to do whatever you want.”
Training on a Special Olympics team can hone skills that are initially challenging. Surak said her son Ryan started out in the basketball program just learning the basics, like how to dribble a ball. Ten years later, he can pass, shoot baskets and play real basketball games. “It’s really amazing,” Surak said.
Fry said that when his son Roman first started track and field, his attention issues made it difficult to finish races.
But Saturday, Roman ran so hard in his 200-meter sprint that he tumbled toward the finish line hands first, rolling over onto his back and panting with exhaustion. Tired, but a champion: Roman finished in first place.
“I finished the whole race because I kept trying,” Roman said after the race, clutching his first ever gold medal.
In Special Olympics, Matthews said, “I feel like I’m with my own kind.” With her team, there is no pressure to prove herself, to convince the world she is just like everybody else.
“Free. That’s a good word. I’m free.”