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Special Olympics `special'

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Nobuko Oyabu

Niki Temiquel, 10, left, and Stephanie Mital, 9, compete in the 50-meter track event during the 18th Annual Mississippi Valley Special Olympics at Augustana College in Rock Island last May.

While competition is key, Special Olympics is about people, Thelma Markwart, area director, said.

``The focus is on people and what they can do, not what they can't do,'' Ms. Markwart said.

For nearly 30 years, Special Olympics has focused on people with mental disabilities, giving them the chance to participate in competitive events to show their capabilities.

The first games were held July 20, 1968, at Chicago's Soldier Field. There were no more than 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada participating. Last year, there are more than 1 million athletes from 150 countries competing in a variety of winter and summer games.

Of the 18,000 Illinois athletes, 425 are from the Mississippi Valley region, which includes Rock Island, Mercer, Henry and Whiteside counties.

Special Olympics holds winter and summer games each year. World games are held every four years. At the winter games last year in Canada, Kewanee resident Derick Carlock won the gold medal in Alpine skiing.

Mr. Carlock was one of seven athletes chosen to represent Illinois on the 138-member ``Team USA'' and was the only Alpine skier from Illinois on the 26-member American ski team.

World Olympic competitors are selected on several criteria, Ms. Markwart said. Skill is important but not necessarily the most important. What directors look for is someone who has social skills and will work well with others, she said.

They also look for someone who displays a great deal of sportsmanship, courage and devotion to training, she said.

In the Mississippi Valley area, athletes compete in eight sporting events. ``Athletics'' or track and field, equestrian, basketball, aquatics, softball and bowling make up the summer events while Alpine and cross-country skiing make up the winter sports.

Those same events are included at the state competition. At the World Games, the list grows to include Bocce, aquatics, golf, gymnastics, powerlifting, figure and speed skating and floor hockey.

While the emphasis has been on competition, it is moving beyond that, according to Ms. Markwart. In 1997, two new programs, Global Message and Athlete Congress were initiated.

Athlete Congress also provides training for the athletes, enabling them to become more active participants in programming. Through brainstorming sessions, the athletes will develop questions and issues they want discussed with local boards of directors. One of the issues that may be discussed is whether children under 8 years old should be allowed to train.

Right now, Special Olympics is for athletes over 8 years old.

Global Message is an intensive speech-training program designed to arm athletes with the information about Special Olympics to take to the community. Sharing with the community is important, Ms. Markwart said, since Special Olympics receives no state or federal support.

``There are so many things that make Special Olympics possible,'' Ms. Markwart said. ``There are volunteers that donate countless hours of time year round, as well as donors and sponsors. We operate strictly from private and business sponsors.''

-- By Pam Berenger (February 9, 1998)

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