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Preparing to compete, excitement fills Special Olympic athletes

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Wearing a blue jacket, with a three-colored ribbon hanging around his neck, Stanford walked around the long, white van, and then he walked around it again.

He had a huge smile on his face. He took his hat off and put it back on.

"I'm gonna win," he said and he gave a thumbs-up -- directed at no one in particular -- and walked around to the other side of the van.

A banner hung on the left side of the vehicle for the benefit of visitors. The banner announced that Stanford and 12 others, who are developmentally disabled, would be driving from the big yellow building on Stockbridge Road in Jonesboro, down to Albany, Ga., for the Special Olympics' Fall Games 2007.

The van windows were painted, for the benefit of the passengers, with the Special Olympics motto in white and blue: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

The competitors at Clayton Center Community Support Services, called "consumers" by the staff and volunteers," may not have memorized the entire motto, but they repeat the first sentence without being asked.

When Jewel Scott, Clayton County's district attorney, prepared to leave after completing a tour of the facilities, Jerry started waving to her. Jerry wore a zebra-themed sweat suit, and he waved and waved at Scott, and said, "Don't worry. I'm going to bring you a ribbon and win."

Scott laughed, shook Jerry's hand and agreed with him. "I know you're going to win. Do the best you can."

The developmentally disabled competitors will compete in bocce ball, one-mile fast walking and one-mile running.

Jerry, Stanford, and the entire team, have been preparing for the games of the Special Olympics for more than a year, said Margie Washington, a volunteer at Support Services.

They've been excited since long before that.

The excitement -- the pacing, the smiles, the display of ribbons -- is a big part of the purpose of the Special Olympics, and a big part of what was driving Washington, Eleanor Watson and other volunteers to load the 13 into a van on Friday afternoon. It's what drives them to coach the would-be competitors through their exercises for months, and what will make them get up before dawn Saturday to usher everyone to the Albany Civic Center by 7:30.

"We get up at 4, 5 in the morning," Watson said, "and you get so tired. Doggone tired. But seeing them excited, no matter how tired you are, the tiredness goes away."

Washington said it's the opening ceremonies at the Special Olympics that really captures the thrill of the event.

"We march with the Olympic music playing. There's the lighted torch and we're carrying our banner, everyone's got their banner and there's the music playing -- It's a rush," she said.

An old copy of an Albany newspaper, clipped and stuck into the file tucked under her arm, has a picture of one of the Clayton County people dancing to the rush of that music. In the picture, Joey has his arms thrown wide. He has a delirious smile on his face. He has the three-colored ribbon around his neck.

Standing next to the van, on Friday, Joey carried his suitcase -- ready to go and hear that music again.