CARY — Sally Hunter of Raleigh spent her weekend driving between the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary and Buffaloe Road Park in northeast Raleigh, a demanding commute she and her family have grown used to throughout their 30 years of participation in the North Carolina Special Olympics Summer Games.
Hunter and her family, which includes two Special Olympics athletes, were among about 3,500 people who participated, cheered or volunteered in this years games.
The games provide for athletes and teams to receive medals, but most participants said the real value emerges in the bonds formed with each other through training and the games, which ran from Friday to Sunday this year.
Its been a wonderful experience, said Hunter, whose two adult children have cerebral palsy and developmental delays. Theres been so much growth.
This year, the games had some 375 aquatic athletes, 330 track and field athletes, 64 gymnasts, 55 athletes showing off powerlifting skills, 25 softball teams and 26 volleyball teams.
Jonathan Small of Durham has been coming to the Special Olympics since 1996. Now 32, he still participates in swimming events in the summer and plays basketball in the winter.
He said he has many friends he looks forward to seeing. His mother, Toni Small, said she looks forward to connecting with other parents.
Seeing your special Olympian swim (is something to look forward to) but another thing is just coming together with a group of families with similar experiences, she said.
Jonathan Small was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2 years old. When he was a child, Toni Small said, it became a saving grace to have a group of people who understood what she went through on a daily basis.
Theres a level of comfort here you dont experience other places, she said.
Supporting thriving athletes
That level of comfort also extends to athletes.
Schuya Osada of Chapel Hill was one of the standout swimmers who was able to find a comfortable swimming environment through the Special Olympics.
Schuya has an intellectual disability and his brother, Koya Osada, does not. The two work together during Schuyas Special Olympic training.
Koya, who is 18, and Schuya, 19, swam on East Chapel Hill High Schools team. But both have graduated and Schuya doesnt swim on club teams, as Koya does. His Special Olympics training represents the only time Schuya and Koya get to spend together near a pool, Koya said.
(The) Special Olympics are really an opportunity to be next to him and I really appreciate that, Koya said.
And as athletes work on their skill, theyre also building confidence.
(The games) show if you work hard and expose them to things and they create confidence in what theyre doing, they can achieve anything, Hunter said. Her son has participated in national and international Special Olympics games.
Jacob Tilley of Surry County is his swim teams self-appointed leader, helping his teammates stay focused on whats important.
Its honestly about leadership, being able to pick up your teammates when theyre down (and) it doesnt matter what kind of medal you get, the 17-year-old said.
Tilley had trouble becoming a member of his high school teams, a challenge Hunter and her children encountered, too.
Her family did manage to find a soccer team that would allow her son to play but until recently those kinds of teams were hard to come by, she said.
Its been a warming thing to know that we created an acceptance here in the community that they do have abilities and they do know how to play, Hunter said.
Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews