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Area youngsters with impairments challenge their own athletic records CARROLL COUNTY TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS


Most of the statistics stored in Becky Donoghue-Rick's memory are about the National Football League, but the one that stands out is her 20-foot throw, with seven-for-seven accuracy, in a football toss yesterday in an athletic contest for students with physical disabilities.

Becky, whose vision is impaired, was one of about 60 students who participated in the eighth annual Tournament of Champions at Western Maryland College for students from Carroll, several surrounding counties and Baltimore City.

The tournament was sponsored by the Carroll County Therapeutic Recreation Council and Western Maryland College to give students with orthopedic impairments, hearing loss or vision deficiencies an opportunity to participate in athletic events. They competed only against their best previous performance.

"Even though we are in the age of mainstream and inclusion, these kids can't go into a regular P.E. [physical education] class and compete. They need a day just for them," said Jim Bullock, tournament founder.

Mr. Bullock, who had been involved in Special Olympics, started the tournament at the college eight years ago because nothing of its kind existed for students with only physical disabilities. A former motor development teacher, he now is assistant principal at Runnymede Elementary School.

Mr. Bullock organized the program after a student asked why he, too, couldn't go to the Special Olympics, which is strictly for people with mental disabilities.

"I promised him that the next year we would have something," Mr. Bullock said.

That student was fourth-grader Jason Hurtle. Jason, now a senior at Westminster High School, still participates in the tournament.

"It's a lot of fun, and it gives us a chance to show what we can do, too," Jason said.

Primary, secondary grades

The participants range from first through 12th grade, although Jamie Hitchner, co-director of the event, said the majority of participants are drawn from lower grades.

The tournament has 11 events that the athletes can try as often as they wish.

Carin Brown, a sophomore at Westminster High, enjoys that aspect of the tournament.

"It's cool because you try to come back and better your own score," Carin said.

Joan Weyers, a Western Maryland professor whose specialty is adapted physical education, also stressed that point.

"They compete against their own scores."

"Students decide how hard they want to make it," Mr. Bullock said.

The tournament is designed with a variety of modifications -- a lower basketball hoop for small participants, or a beeper connected to the hoop so students who are visually impaired can sense the basket. The students can run sprints of different lengths.

Going with the flow

Athletes may choose which events they want to participate in, and the order. The atmosphere is very relaxed.

"I'm gonna go with the flow as it goes," said Jimmy King, an 11-year-old student at Garrett Heights Elementary School in Baltimore, regarding his schedule for the day.

Mr. Hitchner, who teaches adapted physical education at Robert Moton Elementary in Carroll, said the tournament has received positive feedback from participants and their families because it gives the students personal recognition.

"They practice months in advance to show their personal best," he said. "It's a great way to achieve some self-esteem."

Rosemary Allen, whose son Ross has participated in the tournament for four years, feels his experience has been good.

"I think it's great. It gives him a chance to run. He really enjoys being with children who are on his level," she said.

Ross, who has severe scoliosis, likes the football toss the best.

"I knocked the guy [target] down," Ross said. He also likes the day out of school.

Each athlete is paired with a "buddy," usually a Western Maryland student or a member of the athlete's family.

Students from the Francis Scott Key High School Varsity Club also help run the events, mark participants' scores and keep track of events.

"[Ross] feels like a big shot because the college kids make a big fuss over everything that he does," Ms. Allen said.

Veteran performers

A lot of the participants have been to the tournament several times. Yesterday was Jimmy King's third appearance.

"If I didn't like it, I wouldn't keep coming back," Jimmy said.

Holly Del Riego, whose daughter Amanda participated in the program for the second year, also mentioned the athletes' self-esteem.

"We heard about it for months afterward. That's why we're back," she said.

Amanda, 10, who is visually impaired, attends Pointers Run Elementary in Howard County. Her favorite event was basketball.

"I like the medal," she said.

Tournament participants received medals resembling those of the Olympic ceremonies and a certificate that noted their best scores in their events.

In addition to its impact on the athletes, the tournament is a lot of fun for those who support the athletes, said Butch Schaffer, a Western Maryland senior in his fourth year as a buddy.

"It is a great opportunity for the kids to get out and meet other people," Mr. Schaffer said.

"They also get to spend the day competing in athletic events that are designed to accommodate their needs. They don't get that opportunity in their P.E. classes at school."

Tara Harbold, a Western Maryland junior, spent her first tournament yesterday with Ross Allen. "I think it's fun," she said. "I'm glad to see all these kids having a good time."

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