ORONO, Maine — As her teammates rolled red balls toward a small white one during the Special Olympics Summer Games’ Masters 1 bocce final Friday, Catherine Stark sat in her walker and cheered them on.
“This is good; it feels good, too,” she said as she watched her friends compete in a sport that’s sort of a cross between bowling and curling, except on dirt or, in this case, artificial turf.
Bocce is one of the many events spread over four days for people of all ages who are intellectually and physically impaired and held primarily at the University of Maine. Bowling was held Thursday and Friday, several track events were held Friday and more are set for Saturday and Sunday. The parade of athletes and the opening ceremonies were held Friday evening.
The victory dance is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and the friendship circle will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday, concluding the festivities.
“Bocce is probably our fastest-growing sport at this point,” said Scott Gregory, sports director for bocce and a member of the Special Olympics of Maine board.
“Twelve years ago, we had six courts and 15 teams, and nobody knew the rules,” said Gregory. “This year we had 170 athletes in 10 divisions on 14 courts [inside the Mahaney Dome].
“That’s a fraction of what we could have if we had more space and time.”
Stark wasn’t just a spectator, she’s a competitor, too. She participated on one of the other bocce teams of the MERT Enterprises contingent.
MERT Enterprises of Bangor specializes in providing support to adults with cognitive and physical disabilities.
“It didn’t take me that long [to learn bocce],” Stark said. She and her teammates practice behind the MERT offices, she said.
“Throwin’,” said Stark, is her favorite part of the game.
It’s a common theme in her athletic activities.
“I also do bowling — candlepins,” she added.
It’s a somewhat similar motion in delivering the ball, but that’s about all that’s similar.
“They have a different kind of expectation,” Stark said.
While Stark enjoys watching, she also likes participating.
“It makes me kind of proud sometimes,” she said.
The MERT team finally prevailed over Momentum-A of southern Maine, but by then the call to dinner had been sounded and Stark, along with most of her teammates and everyone else not competing directly, hustled off to the fieldhouse for the food.
That wasn’t the only hustling all day.
Competitors, coaches and parents hustled from one event to another, supporting teammates and friends on other teams if they weren’t participating.
A team from Lewiston High School set a blistering pace in its heat of the 4×100 senior and masters relay and carried it through to collect the gold medal for that heat.
Nineteen-year-old Emily Wight, who is graduating this year, ran the first leg.
“It’s awesome,” she said. Her training included running and “I practice handoffs.”
She handed off flawlessly to Johnny Pelletier, who has been participating in Special Olympics for 16 years.
Pelletier shot down the backstretch at Beckett Family Track Complex.
“I was pumped up and [ran] real fast,” he said as he demonstrated the stance he used in waiting for the baton.
The baton exchanges may have been slow as the runners waited for their teammates, but the passes were sure with no drops.
Logan Miquelon took the next handoff, carrying it around the final turn.
“Yes,” he said when asked if he tried hard to keep the momentum going.
Miquelon, in his second year with Special Olympics, has plenty to keep him busy between competitions.
“I walk, I ride my bike in the summer, go swimming,” he said.
“And mountain climbing,” he added after a moment.
Abdi Dagane, 15 and a sophomore at Lewiston, powered down the homestretch.
He’s entered in several events after earning five first-place awards at regionals. Those events include some longer ones, too, but he has a preference.
“Short [races],” he said with a smile, “and I like to play soccer.”
He has been practicing all spring, he said.
“I feel happy. I want to do it again,” said Dagane, his smile growing even bigger.