'Sport in truest form'
Special Olympics get under way in Durham
DURHAM — The 44th annual Special Olympics New Hampshire Summer Games kicked off Friday morning with the lighting of a torch and a parade of athletes.
Throughout the hot afternoon, more than 950 athletes competed in swimming, track and field and bocce ball events on the University of New Hampshire campus.
The event will continue all day Saturday.
Many of the athletes are Special Olympics veterans who look forward to the annual event as a time to catch up with friends and to see the results of their weeks and months of training and effort.
Of the many athletes who will win gold medals over the two-day event, 50 will be randomly selected to represent the state in the 2014 national games, to be held in New Jersey.
In preparation for the extreme heat and humidity that met athletes on Friday, the Durham and UNH fire departments set up misting tents and had extra staff on hand to deal with any heat-related medical emergencies.
UNH Police Chief Paul Dean said there was plenty of water on hand, as dehydration was the biggest concern of the day.
Dean opened the games with his favorite part of the day, a resounding, "Let the games begin," inside the cool Whittemore Center.
He said he has been involved with the games for the past 25 years.
"All you need to do is be with these athletes out there, when the first time they couldn't run a yard, and now they run five and all have smiles on their faces," Dean said. "Everybody in the state of New Hampshire should come down and see this."
Law enforcement personnel have been a big part of the organization's success since they got involved 29 years ago, before many others believed in what the program could do, SONH executive director Mary Conroy said.
Through events like the Law Enforcement Torch Run, police departments around the state raise more than $250,000 each year and "boatloads" of public awareness for the organization, she said.
In addition to the athletics offered by the summer games, the event is also used to promote SONH's Healthy Athletes program, which provides free eye, ear, dental and general fitness screenings for athletes during the games.
"Special Olympics is the largest provider of health care services for people with intellectual disabilities in the United States," Conroy said.
Conroy said the athletes look forward to the summer games in particular because of the experience they get on the university campus — sleeping in dorms, eating together, competing on their fields and in their pool and participating in a Friday night dance open to all athletes.
"I think that people with training can do amazing things. The people we serve happen to have intellectual disabilities, but they are training and doing amazing things," Conroy said.
In 2003, the World Summer Games were held in Dublin, Ireland, ahead of the "real" Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece in 2004.
Conroy said 38 individual scores from the 2003 World Special Olympics Games were better than scores achieved at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
"I think people have said Special Olympics is sport in its truest form. I don't think Special Olympics New Hampshire athletes are as focused on beating the competition as in improving themselves," Conroy said.
Athlete Martha Boddy, 32, of Exeter said after more than 20 years participating in the summer games, it has become like a second family to her.
After a difficult few months, she said her favorite part of the day was re-uniting with old friends from all across the state.
"It just gives me the confidence to just be myself," Boddy said before winning her heat in the 50-meter walk and heaving a "turbo javelin" in her second event of the day.
Exeter High School senior Lindsey Hubbell, 17, has been volunteering with the same athlete for the last four years and said she will miss participating when she goes off to college in Massachusetts in the fall.
"If you sit and talk with the athletes, they just have the best perspective on life," she said, summarizing: "If I have a bad day I go to practice and I am happy for that one hour."
Michael Dennehy of Hopkinton has volunteered for the event before, but this year he was on the sidelines loudly cheering on his own son, Liam Dennehy, 11, in his first summer games.
"It's almost impossible to describe how wonderful the whole thing is," Michael Dennehy said.
For more information on all of Special Olympics New Hampshire's athletic offerings and programs, visit www.sonh.org.