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Special Olympics: Athletes overcome obstacles for opportunity to shine

| Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kaitlyn Root couldn't hold back her stride any longer as she sprinted to the finish line in the 100-meter walk at the Special Olympics Saturday at Baldwin-Whitehall High School.

Volunteers Judy Walker and Debbie Vogel held the finish line tape and cheered as Kaitlyn and the other four competitors each finished, some slower than others.

"You're almost there!" Walker said to one boy just before he crossed the finish line and received a hug and a high-five.

Kaitlyn, 10, of Wexford was all smiles as she celebrated her second gold medal of the day.

"It's fun," she said while thrusting forward the first gold medal wrapped around her neck. "This is what gold looks like."

She hugged her mom, Lori Root, and the two walked a few feet to a winner's podium with a step for each of the five competitors.

"She just likes to be independent," Lori Root said as her daughter received another medal. "Her sisters compete in sports, so this is her chance to shine."

More than 460 athletes competed in 60 events Saturday that ranged from running to bocce to weight-lifting, according to Kathy Guy, who heads the Special Olympics in Allegheny County. Baldwin-Whitehall High School has been the site of the county's Special Olympics for the past 22 years, said Joe Murray, a Baldwin high school teacher and the event organizer.

"Every year (the games) have grown," Murray said. "And every year we get more high school students involved."

Three seniors, Matt Cecala, Brittany Swinson and Katie Hobart, kicked off the festivities with an energetic introduction.

"Are you ready to get going?" Cecala asked the athletes and the more than 400 volunteers who accompanied them.

"You really learn a lot from them," Swinson said later while she presented medals. "Some of them don't know they won, but when they jump on that podium, the look on their faces is priceless."

Walker said watching the athletes compete is the best part of the job.

"It's really amazing how even people with a disability really push themselves," said Walker, of West Homestead. "They do so much with so little. They're so enthusiastic, and you get that way, too."

The biggest attraction might have been "Ultimate Steeler Fan" Bud Recktenwald and his PT Cruiser hatchback adorned in black and gold decals. Recktenwald, 68, of Whitehall has been coming to the Special Olympics for the past 10 years.

He said he was especially touched a few years ago when one boy in a wheelchair trekked down a long and winding path to say hello and deliver a photo of the two of them from the previous year.

"I didn't know if he was going to be able to make it down here," Recktenwald said while thumbing through a scrapbook and pulling out a photo of him with the boy. "But he made it."

Athletes around the field encouraged each other and, in some cases, gently pulled competitors by their arms to coax them to the finish line. Meanwhile, in an adjacent field, a long line of athletes waited to attempt the shot-put, one of the more popular events.

Andy Wagner, 13, of Bethel Park, chucked the iron ball farther in each of his three attempts before it finally rested at 15 feet, 4 inches. His father, Doug Wagner, taped Andy's performance and asked him how he did.

"Good!" Andy said, triumphantly throwing his arms in the air.

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