The rain not yet peppering the 49th annual Lloyd Ray Smith Area 4 Special Olympics Games at Ooltewah High School on Saturday morning, 21-year-old William Toney shifted back and forth in his motorized chariot, determined to win his 50-meter wheelchair race.
"Is that thing street legal?" shouted one spectator.
Toney smiled and nodded in the affirmative and then he was off, deftly winding his way through the orange traffic cones, both hands tightly gripping the chair's handlebars, his eyes firmly on the prize.
"You're going to get a speeding ticket!" Chattanooga attorney and longtime Special Olympics volunteer Jerry Summers yelled to the one-time Central High School homecoming king.
Instead, Toney got a blue ribbon for winning the race before pumping his fists, his victory cementing yet another perfect start to an event long filled with perfection.
And if this year's competition seemed slightly more perfect than the 48 that came and went before it, naming the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's longtime radio voice of the Mocs — Jim Reynolds — as grand marshal might have had something to do with it.
The public-address announcer for the Area 4 Games for the past 34 years, Reynolds wasn't told he was the grand marshal until 15 minutes before the opening ceremony. Also slated to enter the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame this spring, Reynolds said of learning of his Special Olympics honor, "I was in tears. And I don't tear up easily."
Central High basketball Rick Rogers, who's been involved with special needs students for decades, watched Toney's race and Reynolds' award and said, "No matter how many times you do this, it gets emotional."
Anyone would get emotional watching 20-year-old Anna Frierson fly down the track in the 50- and 100-meter runs. A Red Bank High product who now works two afternoons a week at North River YMCA stuffing snack bags for kids in need of nutritious meals, Frierson says she usually fills up to 90 bags a session with such healthy goodies as "yogurt, energy bars and sunshine butter (a peanut butter alternative for those with food allergies)."
She also sweeps floors and cleans, all the while, according to her father, "singing and dancing," much to the delight of her fellow workers.
And when it comes time to race, her family instructs her to "run with the wind."
The wind might have trouble keeping up with this year's Area 4 athlete of the year, 23-year-old Micah Hutcherson, who not only lit the Special Olympics flame during the opening ceremony but also sang the national anthem at a Chattanooga Lookouts game last season, as well as spending this school year as a teaching assistant at Chattanooga Christian School, where he specializes in labeling and laminating.
Said Hutcherson, who is estimated to have won "hundreds of ribbons" during his earlier Area 4 days: "This felt great."
For those old enough to remember when 39-year-old Joe Schoocraft was winning every ribbon in sight, it certainly felt great to see him carrying the American flag during the opening parade.
Said Schoocraft of the experience: "That was cool. That was really cool."
Here's cool: Melody Townsend is enjoying her first and only year at Central before transitioning into adulthood with a hoped-for 9-to-5 job. But first the 21-year-old had two blue ribbons to win, then prepared to attend her first-ever prom, for which she picked out her dress six months ago.
No wonder her favorite subject is math.
"I don't even need a calculator," she said of her math skills. "I just add it up in my head."
Added Central special ed assistant Emily Ditman: "Melody brightens up a room. She's kind of like a mom to our group."
Over the past six or seven years, no organization has brightened up the Area 4 Games volunteer pool more than East Hamilton High baseball coach Steve Garland's Hurricanes, who show up every year to do whatever's asked of them.
One of his assistants, Donald Baker, has been a special ed teacher at East Hamilton the past five years.
"This is their day," he said of the Special Olympics athletes as the first raindrops began to fall around noon. "They work hard, they practice, and when they win, they wear their ribbons around school for a week."
"When our players work this event, you see a difference in some of them. They realize they're not so special. These are the kids who are special."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com