The thrill of victory on every face

A few minutes after local law enforcement officials helped some special needs elementary students pass the torch and light the flame Thursday at the Unified Track and Field Meet – and some other kids with learning disabilities recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the national anthem and got all the words right – I found myself standing alongside the media box at Cheyenne High School, talking to a petite woman with long blond tresses that curled at the ends.

This was Maggie Schwarz, originally of Buffalo, N.Y., now in her sixth year as regional vice president of Special Olympics Nevada. She did not look at all like I expected someone named Maggie Schwarz to look, which was like a telephone operator or perhaps a gym teacher who had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.

But I knew this Maggie Schwarz would have her heart in the right place.

Within five minutes of meeting, I was convinced she would do almost anything for the special needs kids, so when she told me she had rappelled 52 stories down the facade of one of the Rio towers to raise sponsorship money in October, it did not come as a surprise.

Down on the pockmarked football field were 699 special needs elementary school kids running and jumping and throwing the softball and throwing something called the turbo javelin. Each was accompanied by a nondisabled elementary school kid or volunteer to help them do these things, and to slap high-fives after they had done them.

And you should have seen the smiles. Wide smiles, the kind that go from ear to ear. The kind you see at a birthday party when Buttons the Clown makes a giraffe out of a balloon.

And the special needs kids were happy, too.

“I know it’s cliche, but I don’t know who gets more out of it, the athletes or the nondisabled students and volunteers,” Schwarz said.

Based on what was witnessed Thursday, I’d call it a tie.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Unified Track Meet, a partnership between the Clark County School District and Special Olympics Nevada.

The event concludes today with middle school and high school divisions. More than 1,600 students and a like number of volunteers make this the largest event of its kind featuring a 1-to-1 ratio between disabled students and nondisabled volunteers.      

Every one of the special needs kids gets to run and jump and throw the softball and throw the turbo javelin, which looks like a plastic arrow on steroids. Each gets a high-five or a hug from a big kid or a grown-up. Or both.

These are the only rules, as far as I can tell.

The volunteers are from all walks of life and, surprisingly, many of the ones to which I spoke were not a parent or family member of a child with a learning disability.

Steve Cabrales is a retired Nevada highway patrolman who was touched by a tearful thank-you he received from one of the kids and is now a development director for Special Olympics Nevada; Janie Williams is a staff sergeant at Nellis Air Force Base; Zach Cohen a special education coach at Doris French Elementary School who overcame attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the same condition that afflicts some of his students.

Each had a moving story to tell or a heartfelt experience to share, and you didn’t have to look far for one of those.

I happened upon one of my own, standing near the long jump staging zone, where a little girl had her arm wrapped around a little boy. She was giving him a drink of water from a plastic cup.

The little girl was Skylar Jones, a fourth-grade honor student at Harley Harmon Elementary School, where her mother, Cassandra, is the special education kindergarten teacher.

The little boy was Emilio Contreras, 6, who was born premature, at 31 weeks. Emilio has a twin brother who grew up healthy; Emilio grew up on a feeding tube and suffers from autism.

But his mom, Justine, says Emilio is a happy little guy, and if you give him a sheet of paper and a pen, he can spell “Pinocchio.”

When I asked Cassandra Jones whether there was one thing she would like to share with the public about little guys such as Emilio, she hesitated for what must have been a half-second.  

“They just want to be loved like everybody else,” she said with a soft and wistful smile.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@review or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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