When Billy Church and Scott Bunting met four years ago, it was a sailing match made at Elk Neck State Park.
Bunting, a computer systems manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was a skilled sailor from Aberdeen who volunteered to help Special Olympic athletes like Church during the Maryland State Special Olympics Games at Elk Neck. Church welcomed him.
"I can pull ropes and I'm not afraid of the water," said Church, 32, who works at his father's car dealership, A-1 Sales Inc., in Havre de Grace. "I know how to swim. I saved a girl once who almost drowned at Ocean City."
Athlete Church and skipper Bunting will compete in the Special Olympics World Summer Games that begin a nine-day run today in New Haven, Conn. Nearly 7,000 Special Olympics athletes from 143 countries will compete in the 19-event festival. With 52 athletes, Team Maryland has the largest delegation.
The World Games are conducted every other year, alternating between summer and winter. The next winter games will be conducted in 1997, the next summer games in 1999.
Team Maryland's sailors -- six athletes and six skippers -- were given a rousing send-off, sponsored by U.S. Healthcare, during a cruise Thursday aboard Pride of Baltimore II, a replica of an early 1800s Baltimore clipper ship that serves as a goodwill ambassador for the city and state.
tTC With the ship's flags flying and cannons booming, the Special Olympians helped the Pride's crew sail from Annapolis to the Inner Harbor.
This will be the debut of sailing at the World Games. The driving force behind it is Elkton's Tom Barkley, who introduced sailing to the state games 10 years ago.
"Tom is the father of Special Olympics sailing," said Towson's Lynn Flanigan, deputy commissioner for sailing competition at the World Games. "This has been his dream for 10 years, to have sailing included in the World Games. Sailing and special education are two of his main interests."
Barkley sails a Hobie Cat, a two-pontoon sailboat, the type that will be used at the World Games. Because it is maneuverable and stable, Barkley reasoned, a Hobie 18-footer would be ideal for Special Olympians.
"People ask if it's risky," Flanigan said. "Absolutely not, if done prudently. In addition to a skipper, each boat will have a safety officer aboard at the World Games."
Team Maryland has six crews in New Haven, more than a quarter of the 23 that will sail the Hobie 18s lent by New Englanders. To qualify, each athlete trained throughout 1994 and had to earn a medal at the state level.
"We don't have a clue as to how our athletes will do, mainly because we don't know the skill level of the other delegations," Flanigan said. "The past two years, our athletes have had only 14 on-water training days."
Team Maryland has a distinct Flanigan touch. There is Lynn, there is her husband Dan, the Team Maryland captain, and there is Dan's father Leo, the coach.
"Considering their physical and mental handicaps, the athletes do great," Leo Flanigan said. "They try so hard and their drive is amazing. They're so appreciative of anything we can do for them."
Dan Flanigan got involved with Special Olympics sailing 10 years ago, when Barkley's plan was in its early stages.
"It's a great concept and it's here to stay," said Dan Flanigan, a member of Chesapeake Hobie Cat Fleet No. 54. "The athletes love the wind and the water. They don't want to come off the water. That's exciting."
Dan Flanigan is the skipper for Tom Bayne, 35, of Ridge in St. Mary's County. Bayne's parents, who live on St. Jerome's Creek, were the recent recipients of a donated sunfish for their son.
"Tom will take sailing beyond what we've instructed him to do," Flanigan said. "His enthusiasm for sailing is rewarding for all of us."