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Area 4 Special Olympics athlete of the year Jordan Kelly, right, lights the flame during the opening ceremony Saturday morning at Red Bank High School.
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Mark Wiedmer

Befitting her status as perhaps the only athlete from Apison Elementary School to participate in the 51st annual Lloyd Ray Smith Area 4 Special Olympics on Saturday morning at Red Bank High School, Jewelia Pearson wore an event T-shirt that was slightly different from those of her competitors.

Made by her stepmother-to-be, Melissa Blazek, her sky-blue T had all its lettering covered in silver glitter.

"It's glitterful," said the smiling 11-year-old.

As was her performance in the 50-meter run, which won her a shiny blue ribbon.

"I'm really excited," she beamed. "Except for the (starting) gun part."

This was Pearson's first Special Olympics, and she'll no doubt become less rattled by the starting guns as time goes on. But regardless of her result, her father Adam was more than pleased with her effort.

"She worked so hard to come out here and try," he said. "And she shaved almost three seconds off her best practice time. I'm so proud of her."

They come from all over Hamilton County each spring to gather for their special moment, weather permitting, in the sun.

"My favorite time of the year," 30-year-old Sam Reeves said as he stood on the track at Red Bank High School. "I drink a PowerAde Blue, put on my Speedy Gonzales shoes and I'm ready to go."

Cheryl Whitfield, 42, has been ready to go every Special Olympics morning for the past 25 years. Asked how many ribbons she's won over that time as she waited for her turn at the softball throw and 50-meter run, Whitfield replied, "Over 100."

But that's not what she enjoys most about the competition.

"Just being here with my friends," she said with a smile.

Chad Brandon, 44, was there with his friend, Tyler Waters, an assistant strength coach at McCallie School, where Brandon has been a food service employee for the past 15 years.

"He's the first person to greet you in the cafeteria," Waters said. "Chad's probably the most popular guy on campus. His picture was on the back of the McCallie-Baylor football game T-shirts one year."

But for the past month, in order to get ready for the standing long jump, Brandon was in the weightroom with Waters, hoping to improve his chances for a ribbon.

"Every day," Waters said. "And after every workout we'd hand him a TruMoo low-fat chocolate milk to help him recover."

No athlete better embodied the unbridled spirit of Special Olympics this past year than 18-year-old Jordan Kelly, who was honored as Area 4's athlete of the year during the opening ceremony.

Noted Tina Gower, his coach at Hixson High School: "Jordan wanted to run the 400 meters, but he has some asthma issues, and during one of his 400-meter races he had some problems. Afterward, I told him we should probably cut back to the 200-meter race. He said, 'No, I'm staying with the 400 meters.' He's such a great kid, such a hard worker. He's the first athlete of the year we've had from Hixson, and he's so deserving."

Added Justin Kelly of his younger brother's award: "At first I was jealous because brothers are supposed to be jealous, but I'm also very proud of him."

For the Area 4 competition, Jordan did cut back to the 200. Much as with Whitfield, the result of that race was not foremost on his mind, however.

"This is the best," he said of the pleasantly cool sun-kissed morning. "Just having fun out here with other people."

So many people make the Area 4 Games special each April. It's the Voice of the Mocs, Jim Reynolds, handling public address announcer duties for a 36th straight spring. It's Paul Blazek and the rest of the Choo Choo Chorus so artfully singing the national anthem as only a barber shop quartet-turned-barber shop dozen can. It's arguably the greatest Area 4 athlete ever, 42-year-old Joe Schoocraft, proudly leading the opening parade by gracefully carrying the giant American flag.

It's also Schoocraft's gifted protégé, 27-year-old Matt Stephenson, making his parents promise to take him to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, if he bowled a 300 game, then doing just that.

Asked his favorite thing about the amusement park, Stephenson said, "All of it."

The U.S. government learned the hard way a few weeks ago that all of the country wants funding to continue for Special Olympics. It took only a few days for a proposed cut of $18 million to be tabled after a massive public outcry.

As one longtime Area 4 volunteer noted Saturday, "Why would you want to hurt people who can't help themselves?"

Cue the story of Laik Leffew, an 8-year-old Nolan Elementary second-grader who was born with Trisomy12p, a rare chromosome disorder.

"At birth, we didn't know what he'd be capable of doing," his mother Kim explained.

But there he was Saturday, racing in the 50-meter run and tossing the softball as his family and friends cheered him on and waved an oversized picture of Laik's sweet face in the air from the stands.

"He's so excited," said his mother. "He was practicing running up and down the hallway this morning at the house before we came."

Said Hixson's Gower of the importance of Special Olympics to the athletes: "I love seeing them be a part of something and seeing them feel that they're a part of something, that they belong."

As she wrapped up her first year as director of the Area 4 Games after the retirement of longtime head Judy Rogers — who still worked the event for the 47th straight year on Saturday — Beth Webb said, "Lots of chaos, lots of craziness, but also lots of fun. It's wonderful."

Actually, it's glitterful.

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