Special Olympics athletes get chance to shine during Southwest Area track meet

Apr. 30—WEBB CITY, Mo. — Even though the 100-meter race was a long run for his short legs, Thiago Lopez had plenty of energy when he finished at Tuesday's Special Olympics Southwest Area track meet. He was competing against older, faster athletes but finished strong.

To wild cheers from the crowd, the Steadley Elementary third grader from Carthage bounced several times across the finish line to greet his teacher, Cathie Saba, with a double high-five.

For Saba, a special education teacher and paraprofessional with the Carthage School District, moments like that made the long day worthwhile. She's been involved with Special Olympics for 22 years. Tuesday's meet at Cardinal Stadium gave her students time in the spotlight.

"I like this because even though my kids are younger, and they can do track meets at their schools, here they have an option to compete with kids on their level when it comes to physical abilities," Saba said.

The regional track meet also helps her students understand that it's OK if they don't get first place, Saba said. Beyond competing, it's a chance for students to have fun and meet new people.

"Now, they'll have connections everywhere," Saba said. "It also brings the parents together, so they'll have someone to talk to who is in a similar situation. As a parent of a special needs child, it makes a huge difference to have other people out there who are going through the same thing."

Brett Hudson, a special education teacher with the Seneca School District, brought 25 students to the meet. He said it's an awesome experience every year, something that the whole district supports.

"We've got high school cheerleaders and track members here to help," Hudson said. "The morning before the Special Olympics, we have the drum line lead us through the school, all the kids cheer us on. They get pretty pumped about it."

Boost in confidence

One of those Seneca athletes was Jenna Buening, a seventh grader. This is her third year competing in Special Olympics, and she was preparing for a range of track and field events.

"I like running the most because it's just fun," she said. "I also like that you can win medals. I have all my past ones hung up."

Her mother, Whitney Buening, came along to cheer Jenna on and said she appreciated the amount of effort that goes into the track meet every year.

"This is her chance to shine," Whitney Buening said. "She can't play sports because of her vision, so this is at her level where she can play and win medals like her brother. She's so proud to display those."

She thinks her daughter likes running in the Special Olympics enough that she'll compete for Seneca all through high school. She's seen a change in Jenna Buening since she started competing, saying it boosted her confidence.

"These last three years she's really progressed," Whitney Buening said. "She used to be really bashful. Three years ago, she would not have talked to you. She would have hid behind me. This track meet is so great because she gets to compete with all of her friends and they get to shine together."

450 to 500 athletes

Jeff Cole, Special Olympics coach with the Webb City School District and an organizer of the event, said 450 to 500 athletes signed up to compete at the meet, making it one of the largest Special Olympic meets in Missouri. Schools from Nevada to Wheaton and everywhere in between came to participate.

"There is no other experience like being a Special Olympics coach," Cole said. "You have the ups, the downs, the hugs, the 'I'm mad at you because you made me run this,' but the next minute when they get done, they're giving you a hug."

The event also serves as a qualifier for the Special Olympics state meet, which will be held the last weekend in May in Columbia.

Cole said athletes ranged in age from 8 to 60, with different skill and mobility levels. They competed in throwing, jumping and running events.

Cole said his Webb City team looks forward all year to the meet, and team members put a lot of work and preparation into it. The team practices two to three days a week after school.

"It's not easy, but we tell them anything worth doing is going to be hard," Cole said. "It's something that carries over into their work ethic when they get a job."

About 150 Webb City students were volunteering Tuesday, running the events, timing the races and organizing medal ceremonies. Several community businesses volunteered on event day as well.

"I hope they learn they don't have limitations, they can do whatever they put their mind to doing," Cole said. "They have a lot of support. There's a lot of spectators here, a lot of kids who are cheering them on."