Skillfully shooting baskets and kicking soccer balls, 11-year-old Jack Bowman was carefree and content during the 29th annual Tournament of Champions.
Jack was one of more than 100 students with special needs who participated alongside McDaniel College student-athletes in a variety of athletic activities in Gill Gym on campus Friday morning.
"It's just a very fun thing," he said between stations. "In this case, everyone's a winner. There's no frowny faces, no babysitting and no negative comments of any kind."
Jack's mother, Joy Bowman, of Union Bridge, said Jack has participated in the tournament since he was in kindergarten.
"It's not about his disabilities but about his abilities," she said. "He gets to say what he wants to do and he wants to do all the activities. For him, this is a time where he gets to have one-on-one interaction and that helps with his social skills."
According to a McDaniel College news release, the tournament is open to students with orthopedic, visual and behavioral needs who attend public, private or home schools. The students challenge themselves individually and achieve their best scores in various athletic events like scooter races, a Frisbee toss and bowling.
All events are modified to meet the individual needs of the participants. Students do not compete against each other and can go back to any of the event stations to better their own scores.
Bill Vandegrift, Carroll County Public Schools instructional consultant of adapted physical education, said students, parents and teachers look forward to the day each year.
"I start getting emails and calls from parents and teachers asking if I have picked the date yet. McDaniel College and its students have always done a great job. The athletes love having the college buddies. The amount of smiles and laughing that goes on that day is priceless," he wrote in an email.
"Some remember their buddies and request the same one from previous years if possible. Connections and relationships are made. It is great to see the interaction with friends, family and college students as physical education activities bring everyone together."
McDaniel senior Perry Stefanelli helped organize the event.
"As a freshman, I volunteered to be a buddy and I fell in love with the event," Stefanelli said. "It's a happiness I'd never experienced before. As a buddy, you get to be one on one with the champion and everyone is having so much fun. Everyone tries the best they can and gives everything they've got."
Freshman Chandra Reiff buddied up with Julian Ensor, 14.
"I used to be a Best Buddy and I loved doing it," Reiff said. "Julian's a great guy and I think we're going to have a lot of fun today."
Julian said he has participated in the event three times.
"You get to know new people and you have time to go around and do an interesting event like bowling and basketball," he said. "My favorite is the scooters because it feels good on my feet."
Julian's mother, Jennifer Ensor, of Westminster, said the event is a great opportunity for Julian.
"Julian has difficulty with team sports so this is an opportunity to participate in something where he can compete against himself," Ensor said. "He also has some difficulty with his gross motor skills so this is a way to celebrate his abilities and what he can do, not what he can't do."
Renae and George Nelson, of Manchester, came out to support their daughter, Jorja, 6.
"We came last year and she liked the more mobile stations," Renae Nelson said. "We like that it's not competitive — it's just fun."
"She really enjoys it," added George Nelson. "She gets to participate in something like Olympics, something like she's seen on TV."
Shawn Whiteman, of Taneytown, watched her son, Ryan, 11, participate.
"This is my son's third year. He's has fun and enjoys meeting different people and doing the different activities," she said. "He gets some exercise and interacts with kids from different schools. I like the buddy system because they care about what they kids are doing and they treat them like normal kids."
Jude Groomes, 13, said he likes the tournament because "we're all at the same level."
"I like the activities because I'm not competing with kids that are better than me," said Jude, of Hampstead. "I feel like other kids leave me out because of my disability and here they don't."
Elizabeth Gardner, 13, said she appreciated that the activities were adapted.
"I can do anything and everything," said Elizabeth, of Hampstead. "I enjoyed basketball the most because I usually can never get it in the hoop and this time I did. It made me feel great."