Erin Strevig's plans for the next few weeks are clear: Master eating with chopsticks. Find and bring home a panda bear.
Oh, and remember to win a gold medal.
A year before the world turns its attention to Beijing for the summer Olympics, Strevig and thousands of other athletes from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe will descend on Shanghai, China, for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which run from Oct. 2 to 11.
A mix of eight Maryland cyclists, bocce players, sailors and equestrians like Strevig will represent the United States, as part of a team of about 400 U.S. athletes. They are expected to depart tomorrow, first flying to Los Angeles and then on to Shanghai.
"Our athletes will have the opportunity to demonstrate their skill, courage and joy on a world stage," said Tom Waite, senior vice president of sports management for Special Olympics Maryland. "It is significant to the Special Olympics movement."
The event marks the second time the summer games, which occur every four years, are taking place outside the United States since their beginning in 1968.
The sheer size of this year's event speaks to the global movement into which Special Olympics has grown: about 7,500 athletes, representing more than 160 countries, are expected to participate in such sports as basketball and cricket, gymnastics and judo, kayaking and powerlifting, said Kirsten Seckler, a Special Olympics spokeswoman.
About 75 percent of Special Olympics athletes are outside the United States, she said, and China, which has had the sports program since the mid-1980s, has nearly 600,000.
"Showing people that these folks can do more has made an immense difference in their lives," said Mary Shunk, Strevig's therapeutic riding instructor and coach. "We would have kids in institutions that are now out there working in jobs that wouldn't have jobs."
The games also represent a chance to spread the Special Olympics message even farther, encouraging more countries to embrace individuals with intellectual disabilities and recognize their skills.
"Our athletes are often misunderstood, ignored, isolated," Seckler said. "For us to ... give the opportunity to our athletes to show the world their abilities on a global scale is tremendous."
The Maryland athletes are: Megan Cooper and Yuan-Yin "Joe" Wu of Montgomery County; Danny Grau of Harford County; Christine Hoehl of Charles County; Desiree Holland of Prince George's County; Strevig and Syd Lea, both of Carroll County; and Peter West of St. Mary's County. Cooper and Wu will be sailing with volunteer partners David Dalbec and Yates Dowell, respectively.
Strevig, who won two gold medals in Ireland during the 2003 games, said she wasn't expecting another chance to compete abroad.
"I was shocked," said Strevig, who has been riding since she was 8. She and the other Maryland team athletes were selected through a lottery that included gold medalists from World Games qualifying events held last year.
On a recent evening, Strevig was saddled up on Baby, a dark-brown horse, for her therapeutic riding class. It was one of her last lessons before departing for Shanghai, and Shunk kept a sharp eye on her technique.
"Look up, Erin, look up," said Shunk, as Strevig trotted around the Westminster barn. "Don't look at your hands as you shorten the reins. ... Keep posting."
Strevig sat upright, bouncing in time to the horse's rhythm.
"There you go. That's better," her mother, Karen Barrett, said from the sidelines.
Strevig said she was "a tiny bit" nervous about the journey and competition ahead. This time around, she'll be going without family members or Shunk; Strevig's mother, brother and grandmother and Shunk all went to Ireland. "But I'll be OK," she added with a smile.
For cyclist Syd Lea, the journey to China is just another world adventure. Lea, who comes from a cycling family, has traveled to Russia, Austria and New Zealand, to name a few places, for his sport. This year, the 22-year-old Taneytown resident has the added triumph of making it to China a year ahead of his older brother, a professional cyclist, who is aiming for the Beijing games, the Lea family said.
"I'm pretty excited," said Lea, who regularly competes in open cycling races. But he's also nervous, even with a new bicycle that, he said, "is going to go fast."
In his room at the Leas' farm, several clocks line the top of one wall, set to the time in different cities throughout the world, such as Athens, Bangkok, Dublin and Nagano. Some he's visited; others may be destinations for future travels. His medals from previous World Games are also displayed in frames.
Whether Lea is on the road for his work at a nearby horse farm or at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, every trip is an opportunity seized for training. He regularly bikes a 20-mile route to Westminster, where he also takes horseback riding lessons, and sets out in the early morning darkness twice a week for his grounds crew job at the university. Along the way, Lea continually tracks his speed and times.
"It's been more than just sport," said Tracy Lea, his mother, who is going along to Shanghai as a volunteer. "It's really about transportation."
Special Olympics has given her son more than the chance to compete, she said. "It's about the friendship. ... and the skills they can carry over into their working days."
The sporting events also provide skills for life in general, Shunk said.
"It teaches you, [if] you're steady and work at something, you're going to achieve," she said.
There's a lesson for those watching, too.
"These guys cheer each other on. They help each other," Shunk said of the athletes. "Their sportsmanship so far outshines any sport you see."
To follow the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games, check October listings for ABC Family, visit ESPN.com for results or tune in to a Webcast of the events at www.specialolympics.org.