SEOUL – Chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” filled the Collier Community Fitness Center here Monday as a crowd of about 250 American servicemembers and their families staged a rally for the U.S. team on the eve of the Special Olympics World Winter Games.

A fired-up Gen. James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told the 152-member team, “We’re mighty proud of you.

“You are already true champions,” he said. “Whether you earn a medal or not, it is more important to know you have done your very best.

“To be selected to represent the United States of America is an incredible honor and a tremendous accomplishment,” Thurman said, before leading the athletes in a call-and-response of the Army hooah cheer.

Approximately 3,200 athletes with intellectual disabilities from about 110 countries are expected to participate in the games, which start Tuesday in PyeongChang with the opening ceremonies and run through Feb. 5.

The athletes will participate in seven sports, including alpine skiing, figure skating and snowboarding, plus floor ball, a demonstration sport.

In a speech to those in attendance at Monday’s rally, Special Olympian Bryan Terry promised, “We will compete to the best of our ability.”

In doing so, he said the servicemembers and athletes have something in common.

“You fight for freedom,” he said. “Special Olympians fight for freedom too – Freedom from discrimination” against people with intellectual disabilities.

After the speeches, servicemembers and their families mingled with the athletes, praising their efforts and wishing them well in the competition.

Figure skater Kelly Bradshaw said, “It was a different experience just to see all the different soldiers from everywhere, all over the country.”

That was one of the goals of Monday’s get-together, according to Christopher Hahn, head of the Team USA delegation.

“One of the things we try to do … is have a variety of opportunities and experiences, and this is a different type of experience,” he said. “It’s fellow Americans on another country’s soil.

“I think they both had a good time,” Hahn said. “There was some good interaction.”

The first Special Olympic World Games were held in 1968, and are now held every two years, alternating between summer and winter sports.

In conjunction with the games, a number of forums and other events are planned focusing on issued faced by the intellectually disabled around the world. One celebrity guest at Monday’s even was former NBA player Sam Perkins, a member of the board of directors for Special Olympics Inc.

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