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Hearts of gold award medals

The fans stood and cheered as the colorful mass of Olympians paraded in front of the USF Soccer Stadium bleachers. Minutes later, four athletes shared the final lap of the torch run and the last one welcomed in the games with a smile, stopping meters before the finish line and waving to the applauding crowd before being waved through by cheering officials on the field.

“Let the games begin!” shouted Tom Denham, County Coordinator for Hillsborough County Special Olympics Area 8 Games.

Several hundred volunteers and athletes walked, rolled and scrambled to their respective competitions as the unified women’s 3-K and men’s 5-K races kicked off the track events and coaches led their excited soccer teams to the fields.

The spirit that drives the 37-year-old program is captured in the international oath of Special Olympians, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Several volunteers, coaches and family members of participants in this year’s games unanimously agreed that the most fulfilling part is seeing the emotion on their athletes’ faces.

“T-o-d-d,” he spelled, enunciating softly with his tongue and a smile. That’s Todd, Todd Falanga. Falanga is 23 years old and graduated from high school a year and a half ago. Upon first meeting Falanga, one might notice his skeletal or intellectual features are a bit abnormal, characteristic of Noonan’s Syndrome. But he has no problem making friends, his father said.

“Todd’s just a happy guy and outgoing,” Joseph Falanga said. “He’s not looking for anything other than a hug.”

Joseph said Todd has not only achieved a sense of accomplishment and sportsmanship through Special Olympics, but long-lasting friendships.

“I can’t tell you how many times somebody has walked up and high-fived him, and then looked at me and said ‘I was his buddy for Special Olympics three years ago.'”

“We’ve been at Disney (World) walking down the sidewalk and somebody will yell ‘Todd Falanga!” and it’s a bus driver or it’s a buddy or it’s a student.”

“We can’t go anywhere without him knowing somebody,” agreed Jeff, Todd’s younger brother.

Although Jeff, a University of Phoenix student, returns to USF to support his brother at his various basketball, soccer and track events, the former USF student said he usually ends up helping out as a volunteer somehow.

But Joseph and Jeff agreed that the volunteers get more out of the events than the athletes.

“For every hour they’re going to put into Special Olympics, they’re going to gain so much more in memories and friendships, experiences. There’s no way that they’re going to be able to give more than they’re going to get out of that relationship,” Jeff said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a first place gold or a seventh place ribbon, the smiles are all the same.

To see their faces when they go up there to get their ribbon or medal, they just beam,” Joseph said. “It is just total gratification for them, and it is just amazing to see. (They) just prance up unto that stage; they just bound. They love it.”

Father and son Pete and Michael Peterson on the Jesuit’s Dad’s Club volunteered for their first time. Although he was curious as to what he would be doing for a whole day of sporting events, they agreed that encouraging the athletes with pats on their backs and words of encouragement as they finished their laps on the track allowed them a special interaction not usually afforded the crowds at Michael’s high school track meets.

“I’m quite sure we’ll participate in the future,” Pete said as he applauded the women walking in the 400-meter race. “To see the looks on the kids’ faces is unbelievable.”

Sabrina Hill and Sonja Taylor came to the events with a group of older male athletes from the Alafia Group Home for the first time in several years.

“I was so excited! I couldn’t sleep last night,” Taylor said. “We know what it’s all about (now). It’s a lot of work. You have to watch them while they’re racing; you have to race with them.”

Most of the middle-aged men are non-verbal, meaning the director and staff-member have to pay close attention to their words and actions to make sure they understand just what the athletes need and give plenty of encouragement to keep them going at their events. The women considered what to do if the athletes froze and didn’t perform what they’d been training for for months.

“(But) we are so amazed! Bobby, he was great! (And) Raymond, he came alive! His head came up when he got his award!” Taylor said.

Raymond Reed ate his McDonald’s burger with his head facing down into his wheelchair, after racing in the 25-meter race.

“Everything was organized, too. It went smoothly, it went very smoothly,” Hill said. She thanked a volunteer as he carried more refreshments to their group’s small lunch party of matching blue T-shirts.

While each athlete receives top honors for competing at his or her event, the volunteers at Saturday’s games seemed to have won out.

Although many USF students may not interact with individuals with special needs or intellectual disabilities on campus on a regular basis, Jeff Falanga said becoming involved at such events not only looks good on a student’s resume, but offers an increased awareness and greater understanding of who these individuals really are.

“Just do it an hour, and you’re stuck … bet you can’t eat just one, right? It’s the same thing,” Jeff said.