ORONO — The 1,377 participants hail from almost every corner, nook and cranny of Maine, but this weekend, the University of Maine is home for the 42nd annual Special Olympics Maine Summer Games.
Although the 16 athletic events are the main draw, most of the participants surveyed agreed that the chance to meet and greet new friends and catch up with old ones is the best part of the three-day event.
“We get to meet new people, and I get a chance to see some friends I’ve made that I haven’t seen in awhile,” said Matt Farris of Bangor.
The 22-year-old from Bangor is competing at his seventh Summer Games event. Although his main events (basketball, softball throw) don’t start up until today, he wasted little time getting his competitive juices flowing Friday.
“I played bocce ball, but we didn’t do too well,” Farris said of his OHI (formerly Opportunity Housing Inc.) team from Bangor. “It was pretty fun, though. I may do it again next year.”
OHI is one of the largest of the 150 teams assembled for the Games with 40 members. One of the smaller is the neon lime green-clad Madison Bullfrogs overseen by longtime Special Olympics volunteer Maxine Buzzell of Vienna.
“It’s kind of a long story,” Buzzell said of the team’s color and nickname choice. “Most of our team members come from Madison and we knew the school used Bulldogs, so we thought of Bullfrogs instead. We brought 10 people.”
They made it well worth the trip as the 4-by-100-meter relay team of Robbie Squires, Eric Atkinson, Lori Dani and Harry Handle finished in first place in their division.
“I didn’t look around at all. I just stayed in my lane and ran as fast as I could,” said Squires, 47. “I told a guy before we ran ‘we are going to take the gold medal’ and we did.”
This weekend’s event on the Orono campus is the showcase event for Maine’s Special Olympics. Over the years, it has grown from an afterthought to a casual affair to an event circled on refrigerator calendars all over the state.
Things have changed.
“Now I find that more and more parents are involved, which is good,” said Buzzell, a volunteer for the last 38 years. “When it first started, there wasn’t. They would take them and drop them off and take off. Now they’re really, really involved.”
The quality of the athletes has also improved over the years.
“One of the trends we’re seeing because of an increase in coaches’ training is an increase in better-trained athletes,” said Special Olympics Maine program director Mark Capani. “You’re really seeing some incredible athletes with dedicated coaches.”
Capani and Buzzell are prime examples of two different types of organizers who combine to make Special Olympics a success. Capani is one of five full-time Special Olympics employees who administer the program in the state. Buzzell is one of hundreds of volunteers donating their time and expertise to the Games.
“We’ll have 400 to 500 volunteers here this weekend and we’re only as good as them,” said Capani.
The volunteers receive no pay, but they say they’re enriched in so many ways other than financial.
“The thing I find is these guys really appreciate what you do,” Buzzell said. “If you look around the world nowadays, there’s not a lot of appreciation and not a lot of respect. To me, they have both.”
Bangor’s Duane Hall is an OHI employee who also coaches the Special Olympics team.
“What I like is when I see them achieve their goals and see them improve,” he said.
Hall referenced Farris as an example.
“This guy could barely catch or swing four years ago and now he’s one of my best players,” Hall said.
Now Farris, sporting a New York Yankees cap because he couldn’t find his Boston Celtics one, plays in two adult leagues, one of which his team won a tournament title at Vermont last week for the fourth straight year.
With competitors ranging in age from 6 to 76, it’s not hard to find veteran Olympians.
One of the more accomplished among those assembled at the Beckett Complex on a bright, sunny Friday was Chris Oster, a 34-year-old from Bangor.
Oster, who was named the Summer Games’ top miler four years in a row and was presented with the retired trophy per a Games’ tradition for accomplishing that feat, has traveled all the way to Ireland and China to compete in and/or represent Special Olympics.
“I went to Ireland in 2003. I did mile, shot put, 200, 400 and relay,” Oster said. “The furthest one I’ve been to is China in 2007. I did the law enforcement torch run.
“I got to walk on the Great Wall of China. It was quite a workout.”
Hampden’s Nicholas Post ran his trial in the mile Friday and shaved a full minute off his previous best time. He jokingly said his improvement had nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs and everything to do with exercise.
“No!” he said with a smile. “I train almost all year round. I’ve been walking around the streets near my house a lot.”
Boothbay’s Thomas Wilcox is only 10, but he is already competing in the Summer Games for the third time.
“I also do long jump, the 400 relay and shot put,” said Wilcox, who won the 400 in his division Friday. “I like the running long jump the best because I like to land in the dirt.”
Boothbay team manager Toby LeConte, who brought 20 team members to the Games this year, has been a Special Olympics volunteer for the last 38 years.
As a special education teacher, she sees firsthand the complementary benefits Special Olympics provides.
“Everything academic makes it very hard to compete on an even playing field. When they get to Special Olympics, they’re on an even playing field,” LeConte said. “This is more immediate. They can see when they work and work hard, there’s something right there to put their hands on.”