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Jun 11, 2019 11:40 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Local Special Olympians Bring Home The Gold, Silver And Bronze

The 48th annual Special Olympics took place at Hampton Bays High School on Sunday. Sean Lester won a silver medal for the 50-meter dash. ELIZABETH VESPE
Jun 11, 2019 12:18 PM

The motto of the 48th Special Olympics held at Hampton Bays High School on Sunday: “Create a revolution of inclusion.”Multi-colored tents representing different schools from all over Suffolk County lined a green field outside the stadium early Sunday morning. Hundreds of people were in attendance on a warm and sunny morning as the athletes signed in, pinned their racing numbers to their shirts and practiced before the day’s events.

Some of the teams competing for gold, silver and bronze medals included the Springs School Ospreys, the Southampton High School Mariners, the Hampton Bays Baymen, and the Westhampton Beach Hurricanes.

Sean Lester, a sixth-grader who attends the Springs School, was practicing for the “javelin throw” at 9 a.m., right before the grand torch-lighting and opening ceremony. Sean took a break from tossing a tennis ball as far as he could while some of his teammates did the same and excitedly said he’d be participating in the 50-meter race as well before noon.

“I’m fast,” Sean said, explaining that he planned to place in the top three and win a medal.

“I’m going to win,” he said, as his teacher Kristy LaMonda stood next to him and nodded in agreement. Because there is no track at the Springs School, Sean and Ms. LaMonda said, Sean had been practicing for weeks at the East Hampton High School track in preparation for the 50-meter dash.

“I’m going to throw it really far,” he said, as he stepped forward and made a motion that previewed the real thing.

Later in the day, Sean took home a silver medal for the 50-meter race, and he wore it proudly around his neck for the remainder of the day.

Next to the Springs School’s green tent was the Southampton Mariners’ maroon tent. Justin Brown, a student at Southampton High School, was eager to sing the national anthem at the 9:30 a.m. opening ceremony, adding that the national anthem is not an easy song to sing.

“I think this is a wonderful way to show my appreciation for the Special Olympics,” Justin said from behind a pair of sunglasses, with his racing number pinned to a black Special Olympics T-shirt.

With obvious pride, Justin said he’d been participating in the Special Olympics for six years, but that this would be his last year in high school. He plans to work toward his main goal of being hired at the Walt Disney parks in Orlando, Florida. He wants to be a tour guide and, maybe in the future, to be on television.

“It’s a great experience. I’ve met a lot of new friends, and met a couple of old friends from my past,” Justin said of the Special Olympics. “When you’re lucky enough to find these kinds of friendship, you have to count your blessings.”

Justin added that he felt “blessed to be a part of a community that’s wonderful, open-minded and open to everyone.” Later in the day, he placed in the 50-meter dash and the javelin throw.

Paula Retana, a senior at Southampton High School, was holding a stuffed animal—a little black dog—while walking the high school grounds with her father, Gustavo, as they waited for the games to begin. Paula said she was looking forward to the softball toss later in the day.

“She has such a good time,” Mr. Retana said of the event. “Southampton has such a great program,” he added of the school’s special education department.

Finally, students were ushered off to the main stadium for the opening ceremony. The teams marched with their school banners into the stadium as a crowd filled the bleachers and began to cheer.

Michelle “Angel” Athenas, 34, of Huntington ran down the track with the symbolic lighted torch. Last year, Ms. Athenas participated in powerlifting, qualifying for the 2019 Special Olympic World Games in Abu Dhabi, where she won four gold medals and shattered female records in powerlifting.

Some of Sunday’s athletes were competing to qualify for the greater national and worldwide Special Olympics, where they’d put their athletic abilities to the test with other qualifying athletes around the world.

Coordinators of the local event took turns approaching the podium. They explained that the Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.

In the 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy, began a small annual summer camp for children with disabilities in her own backyard, where they could play sports and compete with one another for fun. She became the driving force behind President Kennedy’s White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities, and later directed the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.

Her vision and drive for equality grew in to what is known as the Special Olympics today, with hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities joining in each year all over the world.

Carla Pensa, a special education teacher at Hampton Bays High School and one of the Special Olympics coordinators, has been involved with the Special Olympics for several years, and has worked as coach for about seven years.

“Our team is growing,” she said outside the stadium as the athletes inside were getting ready for the first sprint of the day. “Today, we have 23 students from all three schools,” she said of the Hampton Bays elementary, middle and high schools. The Hampton Bays team started out with just three students, and Ms. Pensa said each year more students join the team.

On Monday, all of the students take their medals to school to show everyone, Ms. Pensa said.

“Some of the students look forward to this all year,” she said of the Special Olympics. “Others are a little anxious, but once the games begin, they love it. Not one student has come and wanted to leave.”

Ms. Pensa added that many of the volunteers are students from the local high schools, and that the event brings community members together.

At 11 a.m., Jacob Deleg of the Springs School was preparing for the 25-meter wheelchair race on the green outside the stadium as Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter and Principal Eric Casale gave him a pep talk.

“We practice a lot,” Jacob said. “I’m excited to win a gold medal,” he added optimistically.

Once students turn 8, they are eligible to sign up for the Special Olympics. Before that time, Sean’s mother, Margaret Lester, would take him to the Olympics to cheer on his older classmates, and it seemed he couldn’t wait to be able to participate.

“He looks forward to it all year,” Ms. Lester said as her son waited for the javelin throw. “It’s all we talk about for months.

“It’s something the athletes take with them their whole lives,” she added. “It’s something they look forward to.”

Following each race or event, the athletes line up for to receive their awards as onlookers clapped and whistled. Ms. Lester was standing near the award ceremony stage right after her son scored a silver medal for the 50-meter dash.

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