Yokota hosting 29th annual Special Olympics festivities
Stars and Stripes May 19, 2008
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The crowd cheered as Special Olympics officials placed a medal around 8-year-old Erika Miller’s neck Saturday.
She had just placed first in her group in the 50-meter dash, an accomplishment which not that long ago seemed nearly impossible.
Last year when the Miller family came to the Special Olympics, it was to cheer the other athletes, said her mother Molly. Her daughter was simply too timid around such a large crowd.
"For us, this has been a long journey just getting her to participate," she said, smiling as she watched her daughter on the winner’s platform.
About 300 athletes representing 14 different schools — along with families, friends, supporters and nearly 1,000 volunteers from throughout the greater Tokyo area — gathered at Yokota this weekend for the games. Among teams participating was a group of athletes representing Department of Defense Dependents Schools from across the Kanto Plain.
Saturday’s competition marked the 29th year Yokota has hosted the event, said Capt. Jen Whetstone, Kanto Plain Special Olympics director.
"Hearing the feedback I’ve gotten so far just proves to me how much this event means to the Japanese community," she said.
In 1984, the Kanto Plain Special Olympics became a private organization and remains the only program in Japan sanctioned by Special Olympics International.
Scores for every athlete are officially recorded and used in qualifying for the International Special Olympic Games, organizers said.
And while a majority of the athletes participating were Japanese, the games are just as significant for the American families.
"It’s just a phenomenal event," said Lorri Blanchard, mother of 16-year-old Rachel. "The best part for me is just seeing the joy she has participating."
Rachel, who proudly showed off her second-place medal in the 200-meter dash, said she liked being able to take part in the games with her friends.
"It warms your heart to see that they’ve made strides and come such a long way," said Jennifer McCullough, a teacher’s aide at Joan K. Mendel Elementary School at Yokota.
Molly Miller — who teaches Sure Start at the school — agreed, adding that not only special needs children benefit from the games.
Before the games, Mendel Elementary fifth-graders organized a cafeteria pep rally during lunch for the DODDS team athletes, said McCullough.
"It’s really easy to see the benefits for a special-needs child," she said. "However, for the other students, especially this year, it has been a chance to gain awareness and a sense of pride for their fellow students’ accomplishments."
Stars and Stripes reporter Vince Little contributed to this story.