A long parade of over 400 student athletes representing 26 local elementary, middle and high schools passed by to constant applause and cheers Friday at the 32nd annual Durham County Special Olympics Spring Games.
A Durham Police Department motorcycle with emergency lights flashing rolled around the Durham Academy track closely followed by Rogers-Herr Middle School’s Luis Martinez-Brown carrying a lighted torch trailed by a pack of police.
Luis held the flame high while ascending steps up and onto a stage before using it to light the giant, official torch basin and opening Friday’s games.
Durham Academy has hosted the Special Olympics event every year of its more than three-decade history. Classes were suspended Friday at DA’s Upper School (high school) for the approximately 450 students and faculty to help and participate in the athletic event.
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Around 150 community volunteers were on hand as well.
During the parade, when the games began and during the competition, the special athletes couldn’t stop smiling.
Even professional athletes are known to get nervous before a big game, before a big venue of cheering fans. Friday’s amateur competitors were no different as nerves fluttered. But the kids got over it quickly and the level of compeition was high — high energy, high delight and high fives prevailed.
Every athlete was paired with at least one “buddy” who helped guide them to their correct places of play in the large field.
The marquee events were the foot races, long jump and softball throws.
Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis spoke to the crowd, saying that she and “the men and women in blue” and her “command staff in white” out on the field, were “so excited to be a part” the event.
Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden riled up the crowd, “Good morning ... Good Morning!” she said.
The crowd responded, “Good morning!”
Cole-McFadden said, “Is everybody ready?”
The crowd responded, “Yeah.”
“Is, Everybody, Ready?” Cole-McFadden repeated, louder.
“Then, Let The Games BEGIN!” Cole-McFadden announced.
Kadance Lewis of Merrick-Moore Elementary School was “buddy-ed up” with Durham Academy sophomore student Zach Hunter.
Lewis won her 25-meter race.
“I saw you run,” a spectator said. “You’re fast.”
Lewis replied, “I am fast!”
Ninth and tenth graders Caphus and Jaylin from Jordan High School (they preferred to use only their first names), finished in second- and first-place respectively in their standing long jump event.
Speaking about the games, Jaylin said, “It’s great because you see all your family and friends watching you and its fun.”
In addition to their long-jump victories, Caphus said he and Jaylin expected to win any other track and field events in which they would compete, too.
Willie Alston made both the hand-held torch and the cauldron now used at the Special Olympics at DA.
He has a history with the event.
Alston said he was driving on I-85 32 years ago when he spotted a broken down bus on the side of the road. He pulled over to help. It was a Special Olympics bus with Durham Academy staff and kids heading to the State Special Olympics Games in Hendersonville. The bus driver had become sick and pulled over. The driver was so sick, Altson said, that he refused to continue driving and had to leave.
A teacher at the time asked Alston, “Well ... Can, you drive us?”
“It was on I-85,” Alston said. “Kids were everywhere. They needed help.”
Alston agreed. He drove the bus, teachers and kids to Hendersonville to compete.
“I saw a kid throw a football, the distance of here to that tree and you would have thought that he won the Super Bowl,” Alston recalled. “I asked if they had a proper torch and they said ‘No.’”
He went on to craft both and has been the keeper of the flames for the local games ever since.