ORONO, Maine — The sun wasn’t the only bright, beaming thing making its presence felt at the University of Maine’s Morse Field athletic complex Saturday.
Radiant smiles reflected the enthusiasm and enjoyment of athletes, coaches, volunteers and onlookers alike as approximately 1,300 athletes from all over the state competed in the 43rd annual Special Olympics Maine Summer Games.
It was hard to tell who was more excited about Alyssa Rudge’s bronze medal in the 50-meter dash: her, sister Kailee, or mother Melanee.
Then again, the 9-year-old Summer Games rookie, who also ran the 100 and 200, was kind of nonchalant about it as she was asked about her initial impressions of the annual event.
“It’s kind of fun,” Kailee said while shyly looking down at the medal clutched in her right hand. “I like the 50 the best!”
Melanee Rudge, who was a Special Olympics volunteer about 10 years ago through McDonald’s, was much less stoic. “I think this is a very cool thing,” she said. “They love it. She’s pretty happy about her medal.”
Twin siblings Brianna Leneski and 10-year-old brother Josh of Winterport were also quite pleased with their inaugural Summer Games experiences. Third-grader Brianna won silvers in the 50-meter and the long jump while Josh earned bragging rights with golds in the same events.
“Long jump is my favorite because I really like to jump,” said Brianna, who finished with three silvers on the day.
Josh was more noncommittal. “I got gold in 50 and long jump, but I don’t have a favorite yet,” he said as he munched on some crackers and guarded an unopened can of soda on a hot, humid afternoon at the track.
Later on, he added another gold for the “hat trick.”
The nine-member Hampden contingent was helped out by six-year volunteer coach Andrea Lee.
“It’s truly amazing to see the looks on their faces and the pride they have after winning a medal,” she said. “This is nothing without the athletes. It’s all about them.”
The three-day competition offers 15 different events ranging from track and field to bowling. It also features a big dance, identified as the highlight of the weekend by most veteran Special Olympians.
Sue and David Mooers of Hampden weren’t sure what to expect as the accompanied 9-year-old daughter Madison to her first Games, but they remained amazed by the whole event on the second day.
“Right now I’m still kind of in awe. It’s much bigger than I expected and it’s very well run,” said Sue Mooers. “This is just amazing to see this many people and this much support.”
“Everything’s on time and well-run, and that’s good for someone [meticulous] like me,” joked David Mooers, a technical service engineer for Albany International.
And it didn’t hurt that Madison came away with two gold medals, although it wasn’t entirely shocking to her, as she told her mother Saturday morning that she’d dreamt about winning a gold medal the night before.
Veteran Special Olympians were enjoying the day as well, especially since it served as a prelude to an even bigger gathering of fellow athletes in Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
Cailynn Goss, a 22-year-old Hampden native who has been competing in the Special Olympics for about seven years, is one-third of the Maine contingent competing in the Special Olympic World Games later this month.
“A friend told me about the world games and we had to do a couple of resumes,” she explained. “My high school swim coach wrote one for me and I had another nomination done. We had to send those and my times in to apply.”
A week later, she couldn’t believe what came in the mail.
“I got a letter and it said I was going. I opened the envelope very slowly and it said congratulations,” she recalled. “I was screaming my head off.”
Goss will be competing in the 100-meter freestyle, 50 butterfly, and medley relay swimming events. The bonus is she’ll have an Olympian friend competing with her, as Lewiston’s Megan Dyer, 23, will be swimming the 25-meter backstroke, the 50 freestyle and the 4×50 relay. They will be joined by Matt Poulin of Damariscotta.
“I signed up and started off as an alternate and then I got a call to tell me I could go,” said Dyer, one of approximately 7,000 Special Olympians scheduled to compete.
The trio has already put in a lot of preparation work as they all went to San Diego for five days to be trained by a special volunteer coach from North Carolina, who will rejoin them in Greece.
Brewer’s Duane Hall, a 20-year Special Olympics volunteer and coach, will also be making the trip. This will be his third World Games; his second Summer Games event.
“We’ll be out there three weeks. We’re flying out of Boston on the 19th and be back on July 6,” said Hall. “I’m a bowling coach so I won’t even see these guys once we get there and they start competing.
“They’ll have their same coach from North Carolina. It’s a unique system, but you really meet a lot of different, new people that way.”
Despite the chance to see iconic attractions like the Parthenon and the Acropolis, Hall says there is something else he’s looking forward to most.
“No matter where we go, the best part is the athletes and hanging out with some really cool people,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Alyssa Rudge's sister's name. It is Kailee, not Kaylee.