CHARLOTTE – Since her freshman year at Charlotte Country Day School, senior Virginia Hart couldn’t wait for this year’s Mecklenburg County Special Olympics.
For the 35th consecutive year, CCDS has played host to the Special Olympics.
One of the best host jobs is being a clown that hands out balloons. But being a clown is reserved for seniors, and Hart was among the lucky ones to be picked.
“I wanted to do this since my freshman year,” said Hart, or P-Nut as she was known as April 25. “This is so much fun.”
But no one was having as much fun as the more than 1,500 Special Olympics participants at the three-day event. Athletes from all over Mecklenburg County participated in track and field events, softball skills, motor activities, Young Athletes Program and swimming competitions.
The motor activities competition is designed for athletes with severe or profound intellectual disabilities while the YAP are games offered for athletes ages 2-7 but are not competitive.
The Special Olympics kicked off April 23 with an opening ceremony at Bojangles Coliseum. Events were also held at the Mecklenburg County Aquatics Center, Hough High School and Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics Center.
More than 500 CCDS students volunteered at the event as well as 150 coaches and 400 general volunteers. Numerous Charlotte area businesses and other groups also played a huge part in the event.
“We are extremely proud and happy that we are a part of this Special Olympics,” said Kinga Zay, who is a teacher and the community service director at CCDS. “Our partnership benefits our students because this is a fantastic learning experience for our students. This is something that the students look forward to once they start elementary school.”
Zay said seeing the smiling faces on the Special Olympics athletes and their excited parents and teachers makes all the hard work worth the effort.
“I think there is a huge competition (from volunteers) to be at the finish line because that is so rewarding,” Zay said.
Many of the CCDS students were “buddies” and they were paired with a Special Olympian for the day. One such buddy was CCDS student Safiyyah El-Gamal and the junior was paired with Special Olympics athlete Rylnn O’Daniel, who attends Selywn Elementary School.
O’Daniel competed in the field events portion of the competition, including being timed while running the bases at the softball field.
El-Gamal has been involved with Special Olympics since her freshman year and said she looks forward to the event every year.
“We walk around with our buddy (athlete) and make sure they are having fun and going to the clinics,” El-Gamal said.
One of the challenges El-Gamal faced was all her communication with O’Daniel had to be non-verbal.
“I just give her positive encouragement,” El-Gamal said. “I give her high-fives and such to make sure she has a good time. I love seeing kids happy, and I love interacting with the kids.”
Another CCDS buddy, junior Francis Bowles, ran alongside Special Olympian Imoni Davis in the 100-meter dash. Bowles then high-fived Davis, a Lawrence Orr Elementary School student, on the medals podium as she picked up her first-place medal.