Special Olympians get their day in winner's circle


At Baltimore's 25th Special Olympics yesterday, 16-year-old long jumper Jeanne Mcrae walked through the maze of contestants, teachers and volunteers, searching for the starting line.

She had been looking forward to the event for weeks and now that she had arrived at the Johns Hopkins University track, she wanted to get on with the competition.

Jeanne, a student at George W. F. McMechen High School in Northwest Baltimore, has a speech problem caused by cerebral palsy.

Her partner and official "hugger" for the day, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute student Leila Green, did her best to care for the girl.

Leila, 15, led Jeanne through the crowd by the hand, gently coaxing the special Olympian.

"I think she wants to jump really bad," said Leila, as they waited impatiently. She held Jeanne's hand tightly and brushed grass off Jeanne's back, like a mother caring for a small child.

When it was Jeanne's turn to jump, she swung her arms back and forth for momentum and jumped a few feet forward. Everyone cheered -- Leila especially -- and the event was over in seconds. And Jeanne beamed with pride.

The Special Olympics brought 1,000 disabled student-athletes to the Hopkins campus from 28 city public and private schools.

It also brought hundreds of volunteers like Leila from local high schools to guide the competitors through the races.

The Special Olympics was created 25 years ago to provide athletic competition for mentally and physically handicapped children.

Leila, a 10th-grader at Poly, one of the elite city-wide public schools, said she volunteered to help other children with special needs. "We go to school with a bunch of brainy people. It was a chance to be with somebody different," she said.

In the bright sun the other contestants competed in wheelchair races, softball and tennis ball throws and 100, 200 and 400 meter runs. The competition will continue Thursday with more games and races.

"These are kids who stay in their homes, watching television. It gives them an opportunity to prove they can do something well. It gives them a chance to stand out because their self image may need to stand a boost," said Leslie Brudenell, games director.

Winners of this week's races will go on to compete in the state-wide Special Olympics on June 16, 17 and 18.

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