Peachtree Ridge hosts track and field for Gwinnett Special Olympics

SUWANEE - Cheerleaders waving blue pompoms urged the athletes on from the sidelines. The 150 students raced and jumped their way through the track and field events. Despite the almost freezing temperature and powerful winds, they had to push themselves to get good times.

It was just like any other high school sports event, with one exception: All of the athletes were in special education classes.

On Friday, Peachtree Ridge High School hosted the track and field events for the Gwinnett County Special Olympics.

"These are very much the uncelebrated people, and what we're hoping to do today is put the spotlight on them," said Sean Page, a Peachtree Ridge special education teacher who helped coordinate the event.

The games kicked off with a walk around the track by all of the athletes. In the background played the theme from "Rocky," the ultimate underdog. As each school's team reached the finish line, the students cheered and an announcer shouted their schools: "Mill Creek! North Gwinnett! Norcross!"

The Special Olympics have become an annual tradition for Gwinnett County schools. Throughout the year, the students also compete in volleyball, basketball and softball, said Lynette Swanson, the adapted physical education teacher who coordinates the Special Olympics.

"We wanted to try to give them something like regular kids have. Our special education kids wanted to be able to compete against someone of their own ability," Swanson said.

The track and field events included the long jump and several sprinting events. There was also a wheelchair division for competitors. Students were divided into heats based on their best times and distances. So in a typical race, anyone could be the winner.

Originally, the grand marshal for the parade was going to be Jim Mora, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. When he couldn't make it, Kevin Butler, a former Georgia Bulldog and NFL kicker, came instead. He is also the president of the Peachtree Ridge Foundation, which contributed significant funds for Special Olympics events.

"We're trying to build a community here, and this is certainly a good way to do it," Butler said. "I think it brings everyone together."

Rather than the events being purely about winning, teachers and organizers stressed support for all athletes. Those students who want to participate at the state level will have a chance to go to the Special Olympics Georgia, which will be held in June at Emory University.

For Sandy Showah, whose daughter Erin has been competing in these Olympics for year, it matters little whether she wins. Showah loves to see her daughter's enthusiasm as Erin practices for the 200 meter run or the long jump.

"She's very athletic and she loves every sport she's in," Showah said. "But what she gets out of it also is the community, the social aspects of being with other kids, the other athletes."

For more information on the Special Olympics, visit www.specialolympicsga.org.