Special Olympics Florida

Sheer joy at Pasco County Summer Games

Written by:  Michele Miller via Tampa Bay Times

Wyatt Johnson, 8, was busting hearts and smiles as he wheeled solo down the high school track at River Ridge Middle/High School.

It was 20 meters of pure joy for the kid from Cotee River Elementary, who had three generations of family members cheering him on from the sidelines and instructional assistant Kelly Lugo just beyond the finish line.

“You did it,” said Lugo, as she draped him in remnants of the purple, crepe-paper finish-line tape.

“This is so great,” said Wyatt’s grandmother, Colleen Ehman, as she captured moments on her cell phone while Lugo fetched a first-place ribbon. “He’s been through so much. He’s had multiple surgeries, but he’s always smiling.”  And so, pretty much, was everybody else.

Times Wyatt Johnson, 8, smiles as he reaches the finish line Summer Games, held for west Pasco students on Feb. 21 at River Ridge Middle/High School. Wyatt, who won a first-place ribbon for the 20-meter race, was one of more than 1,200 athletes competing at the competition held over two days in New Port Richey and Wesley Chapel.

Wyatt’s story was one of more than 1,200 that played out on the track and field at Special Olympics Florida – Pasco County Summer Games held Feb. 21-22 on the River Ridge Middle High and Wesley Chapel High school campuses. Hundreds of volunteers from public and private schools, as well as the local community, also came out.

The games began at River Ridge, with opening ceremony featuring an athlete parade and torch run around the track. Representatives from the Heritage Springs Association in Trinity presented a check for $26,280, making it $330,000 donated to Special Olympics Florida – Pasco County over 17 years. The Suncoast Eagles Auxiliary also presented a check for $803.

Running, walking and wheel-chair races, soccer skills, soccer games, long jump and bocce were among the events. New this year was a cheerleading competition.

Between events, athletes could play games, line dance or pitch a ball and soak a student volunteer in the dunk tank in the Olympic Village. Students in the teachers academy at River Ridge also presented a football skills clinic.

Special Olympics Florida, which started in Pasco in 1972, serves athletes with intellectual disabilities, ages 8 to “how ever long they want to move,” said Val Lundin who coordinates county-level events held throughout the year, with east-side coordinator Phyllis Crain.

There has been some outreach to younger children as a way to prepare them for what’s to come.

A new feature this year at the Wesley Chapel venue was an obstacle course for children ages 2-7, sponsored by Special Olympics Florida.

“They bring all the equipment and set it up. It’s sports skilled,” Lundin said. “It’s a good way to introduce the younger kids to competitive sports training and competition, so when they reach that magic age of 8, they’re ready to go.”