It was a beautiful, sunny day Friday when more than 100 special athletes -- representing all the schools in Marshall County, and some special adult athletes as well -- gathered at Westhills Elementary School for the annual Special Olympics.
"It's a great thing we're looking at today," organizer Bobby Holly said.
The competitors were qualifying for the state Summer Games to be held at Vanderbilt University on May 20 and 21, Holly explained. His wife, Sandra, is the director of Special Olympics for Marshall and Giles counties, and is a special education teacher at Oak Grove Elementary School.
On the playing field at Westhills, there was "organized chaos," according to one official, as several events went on simultaneously. On the track, athletes were running or walking different distances. A bocce court was set up in one part of the field, and softball throw in another.
Qualifiers in other events -- volleyball, aquatics, power lifting and tennis -- are decided elsewhere.
Cries of "I'm so proud of you!" and "Good job, guys!" resounded all day, and it seemed like everyone was a winner. All the results were announced over the loud speaker, and everyone who placed first, second or third got to stand on a podium and had a medal hung around their neck.
Agricultural extension agent and volunteer Rick Skillington parked his pickup truck over the long jump area to prevent children playing in the sand before it was time to jump. Skillington's daughter, Ginger, now 24, has been participating in the Special Olympics since the family moved to Marshall County in the 1990s.
There was no such prohibition on using Westhills' playground equipment, and many children could be seen enjoying the swings, slides, and teeter-totters. There were at least as many volunteers as athletes, including members of high school service clubs, the Junior Auxiliary of Lewisburg, and the junior board of First State Bank.
"For a small county, we stay busy," Holly said, referring to Marshall County's two trips to the national Special Olympics -- last year to Lincoln, Neb., and four years ago to Ames, Iowa. Marshall County competitors participated in the world games the year it was in Ireland, and have been to California to play in the national Special Olympics golf.
They raise money for Special Olympics all year long, Holly explained. First State Bank just presented them with more than $1,100 raised in the "Spare Change for Special Olympics" campaign.
"That will probably take care of the trip to Vanderbilt," Holly said.
The local McDonalds brought lunch to the field, and Wal-Mart provided the shirts for both athletes and volunteers. According to the Web site www.specialolympicstn.org, Special Olympics is free. The financial and in-kind support of sponsors, donors, and families make it possible for Special Olympics athletes to never be charged a fee to compete.