The morning sun beating down on a Lloyd Ray Smith Area 4 Special Olympics Games for the first time since 2019 on Saturday morning, director Judy Rogers scanned the Hixson High School football field filled with 102 Special Olympians, broke into a wide smile and said, "It's so wonderful to be together again."
This was Rogers' 50th Games. The Area 4 event has now been held 52 times at various high schools across the Chattanooga area, including McCallie, Ooltewah and Red Bank.
"Let's make sure we put all our trash in trash cans so they invite us back," Rogers announced at one point to several handclaps.
But most of the applause was quite deservedly reserved for the athletes themselves, who have been without their signature event for the past two springs, their annual competitions derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been angry since 2020," said 47-year-old Chad Brandon, who works at the McCallie cafeteria during the week and was anxious to again win a medal in the 50-meter run and softball throw. "I wait all year for this."
Amy Chambers woke up at 6 on Saturday morning to make sure she got to Hixson by around 9.
"I got a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit and orange juice," said the 41-year-old, who's been competing in the Area 4 games since she was 7. "Sometimes I go to McDonald's. Sometimes I go to Hardee's."
She's always excited to go the Area 4 Games "to see my friends again. My boyfriend Charles (Haley) is here today, too."
And what has she done with the all the ribbons, closing in on 100 now, she's won through the years?
"I keep them in a box in my room," she said with a smile.
Sitting nearby was Amy's mom, Anna Horn.
"This means everything to me," she said. "I love for Amy to get a chance to participate. It's all she's talked about the past week."
It's not often in sports we get to talk about athletes who care more about the friendships they have with their competitors rather than their desire to win. But many more times than not, quite possibly 95% of the time or more, that's the mindset of Special Olympians.
They all want to win, but what they most want to do is compete. With friends. Their faces almost always filled with joy instead of frustration.
Or as the Area 4 Special Olympics' athlete of the year, Hixson High's Rachel Mullins, noted as the deaf student signed the Special Olympian's oath for the crowd: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."
Like so much else in America, if not around the world these days, the numbers of those participating is down. So, too, the financial support. But there are hopeful signs the Area 4 competition, like so much else, is slowly regaining its footing.
"We've got the biggest delegation (number of athletes) in one of the smallest areas in the state going to the nationals at the ESPN facility in Orlando," said Lindy Blazek of the unified volleyball squad she'll take to that competition in Florida later this year on the eve of her 50th anniversary (August) working with Special Olympians. "We're taking 15 from the Area 4 Games total. That's never been done before."
Lindy's husband, Paul — who took over public address announcer duties from Jim Reynolds this year — is also a member of the Choo Choo Chorus, the group that so beautifully delivers the national anthem at every Area 4 Games.
"We had 20 sing this year," Paul said. "It's our biggest group in 15 years. I think people just want to get out and do something again."
Added spectator Paul Feaster: "I think we all just want to get back to some semblance of normalcy."
There are few better examples of these Area 4 Games returning to normal than the twin sights of athlete Joe Schoocraft and volunteer Kristi Totherow, who was this year's grand marshal.
Schoocraft, 45, is arguably the greatest Area 4 track athlete ever, winning pretty much every race he ever competed in, most by a margin wide enough to make Secretariat's 31-length victory over Sham in the 1973 Belmont Stakes seem almost like a photo finish.
He still competes in bocce and will again attempt to win that event in the state games at Lipscomb University in Nashville later this month.
His Saturday assignment was arguably more important and pressurized. He carried the American flag into the stadium just before Mullins deftly lit the torch to officially begin the competition.
Said Schoocraft when asked about how he performed his duties: "Proudly. Both hands."
What did he do to be ready for the moment?
"Pop Tarts with coffee — black and some sugar," Schoocraft said.
As for Totherow, she's been involved with the Area 4 Games for 30 years. She taught special education at Red Bank Middle for 40 years, retiring after COVID-19 struck.
"I got a lot more out of it than I gave," she said of those four decades.
Asked what first led her to volunteer for Special Olympics, Totherow provided a two-word answer that said it all about her heart and all the hearts of all the others who give their all so that these these amazing athletes can have their one special day in the sun each year: "Somebody asked."
5-at-10: Friday mailbag with NFL draft winners (UTC) and losers (stupid Falcons), Round 2, Acuna and more