When Natalie Dobash was on the swim team at Joppatowne High School for four years, she always got in the pool on race day and stroked as hard as she could. She never finished first, but she always finished -- that was her point of pride.
But yesterday was Dobash's day. The 19-year-old was racking up the medals at the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games at Towson University. It was just after lunch and she had already won her third gold -- this time by nearly an entire pool length in the 400 freestyle, a grueling event of 16 laps. She would add a silver before the day was through.
On the high school team or in her county swim club, "she never wins, but she's always chugging along," said Dobash's mother, Suzi, a legal secretary in Baltimore. "They called her a ringer when she came to Special Olympics."
The three-day Special Olympics competition began Friday with opening ceremonies and will continue through today with track and field, softball and even bocce events. More than 1,000 mentally disabled athletes of all ages -- starting at 8 and spanning into their 60s -- have come from across the state to compete.
Athletes are placed into divisions with others of like ability. The idea isn't to ensure a gold for everyone -- that would render the awards meaningless -- but to give everyone at least a chance at victory.
"For most of these athletes, this is the most important day of the year," said Patricia Krebs, president and chief executive of Special Olympics Maryland. "This is showcasing the best they can do -- that's what it's all about."
"The Special Olympics philosophy is teaching life skills through the vehicle of sports," said Kelley Wallace, the organization's spokeswoman. "The biggest problem among the disability community is isolation. ... This becomes their family, their social network. It's about so much more than sports."
After one of her races, Natalie Dobash was busy showing off her arm muscles and practically squealing with excitement over her success in the pool. "I like beating everyone," she said, sucking on a victory lollipop.
Her mother says she likes the self-esteem boost Natalie gets when she is actually competing with a chance to win, unlike in the high school or club setting.
"Just like Michael Phelps, he can't swim with high school [students] anymore because he's too fast. He can't swim with college [students] because he's too fast," Suzi Dobash said. She tells her daughter, "Now you're in your area where you compete and you can be on top."
This was only her third Special Olympics, but others have been doing this a lot longer.
Leslie Jones helped light the torch for the first Maryland event at Towson in 1970. At the Baltimore competition earlier this year, it was his job to shout: "Let the games begin." Yesterday morning, Jones, now 49, was atop the winner's stand, a gold medal draped around his neck for winning the 50-meter walk.
Clad in the bright yellow T-shirt many athletes and volunteers were wearing, Jones began clapping as his name was announced over the loudspeaker. "Yes sir," said the man with the microphone, "you applaud yourself."
"I feel good today," said Jones, who picks up the trash and cleans tables after lunch at a West Baltimore business center.
"He is a go-getter," Leslie Brudenell, director of Special Olympics for Baltimore City, said of Jones. "He's one of my favorites."
The weather cooperated for yesterday's festivities, offering warm sunshine. Last year, rain forced officials to cancel the softball games and those athletes spent much of their weekend stuck in the dorms.
The Nealon family of Grasonville were at their first summer games yesterday. Eleven-year-old R.J. Nealon was competing in four swimming events. The rest -- including his mother, father, two brothers and a sister -- were just taking in the atmosphere and enjoying every moment.
"It's just been a wonderful experience," said his mother, Barbara. "Everyone tries so hard and whether you come in last place or first place, everyone's so happy. Everyone cheers you on."