Maryland Special Olympics celebrates 41st games

With a few minutes to spare before running a 400-meter race in Maryland's Special Olympics, Mike Heup waited in the stands and contemplated his game plan.

To escape the hot sun, the 31-year-old Anne Arundel County resident wanted to cool off under a water misting station at Johnny Unitas Stadium at Towson University, a long-time host to the games, which ended Sunday afternoon. Not a good idea, his mom warned: Wet sneakers wouldn't be kind to him in a race.

Instead, Heup, a 10-year-veteran of the games who works at a grocery store, drank bottled water and iced himself down. And even though it was hot, he advised, "You run as hard as you can."

Heup was one of 1,600 athletes participating in this year's 41st Special Olympics, which began Friday with an opening ceremony featuring Baltimore Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco and champion figure skaterKimmie Meissner.

The games, which provide sports training and competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities, was the brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She started a summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at her home in Maryland. The Special Olympics are now held in countries around the world.

"Special Olympics is not just 'nice' — it's important,' said Patricia Fegan, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland. "These athletes face challenges and struggles every day, but it doesn't stop them from giving it all on these playing fields. They are an inspiration to all of us."

The athletes participated over the course of the weekend in five sports — aquatics, track and field, bocce, cheerleading and softball — a culmination of at least eight weeks of training and qualifying competitions. Despite the weekend's hot and humid weather, event officials said there were no heat-related injuries.

Joyce Powell, the head coach for Baltimore County Track and Field and a member of the county organization's volunteer board, said the games are therapeutic because they give the participants the opportunity to interact with people who have similar life experiences.

"They're finally getting recognized for doing something and not being the one that can't do it," said Powell, a schoolteacher who has volunteered with the organization for 19 years. "They can do it."

Tyshyea Miles, a former student of Powell, participated in several events on Sunday — the high jump, a 400-meter race and shot put.

Miles, 20, relished the fact that her pentathlon team consisted of all boys. "I'm the only girl," she said. "Cool."

Miles, who is a student at the Community College of Baltimore County at Catonsville, had just one goal: "I want to go really, really fast," she said.

Lindsay Conboy was pool side most of Sunday, as she cheered on Baltimore's swim team, which she's coached for the last three years. They won a lot of gold medals, she said, and though they get in the competitive spirit, their sense of camaraderie as a team looms large.

"They give each other high-fives," said Conboy, whose own children swim competitively. "A lot of people don't think of swimming as a team sport, but it really is and they form very close bonds with their teammates."

Michaela Parks, of Easton, had a good showing during this weekend's games. By Sunday afternoon, she had earned two gold medals and one silver for her Eastern Shore-based team.

The 26-year-old has participated in the games since she was eight in Howard County. After mastering the butterfly, backstroke and breast stroke, she's a known entity at the games.

"The first day when I started with this team, my swimming coach from Howard County said he wanted me back," she said, smiling as she recounted the story. "I was just so good for Howard County that they wanted me back so bad."

Tom Humphreys of Ellicott City has volunteered for the past three years as the event's official announcer. From the press box in the stadium, he announced the track and field events, those participating, and every so often, reminded the athletes and spectators to drink plenty of water.

"When they hear their names they get so excited," he said. "They cheer and turn to their family and friends and jump up and throw their hands in the air. It feels good to be a part of it."

A few minutes later, Humphreys announced the men's 400-meter, with Mike Heup, number 18, in lane four.

And almost as if on cue, Heup turned towards the stands, jumping and waving his hands.