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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — When the 2005 Special Olympics Team USA arrived at Yokota’s air terminal Tuesday morning, they were met with cheers, high-fives and hugs from base residents.

More than 200 athletes and 80 coaches en route to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, walked between two lines of residents who clapped, cheered and chanted “U.S.A, U.S.A.”

Airman 1st Class Herschel K. Thomas, a 21-year-old from Mount Airy, N.C., volunteered to do “anything to help, pretty much.”

“It’s something good … good to show support,” he said. Thomas worked with the Special Olympics in high school and was a greeter at last year’s local Special Olympics on Yokota.

The team landed at Yokota after a 13-hour trip from Los Angeles on a chartered plane thanks to assistance from the Air Mobility Command, said Frank Fitzpatrick, a Department of Defense special events coordinator from Washington, D.C. He said it took about three months of planning to arrange the transportation and Yokota stop.

Speed skating coach Ray Thoren, from Denver, thought the event was “pretty neat.” The Army veteran said the outpouring of support for the athletes wasn’t a shock. The biggest surprise, he said, was how much Yokota had changed since he transited through the base on the way to South Korea in 1969.

“They all look so young,” he said of the airmen greeting his athletes.

Staff Sgt. Gerald Morey, Kanto Plains Special Olympics event director, was happy with the event.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better turnout,” he said. “To see the athletes’ faces” as they arrived was the best part.

Airman 1st Class Erica Dorval, 22, of Miami and Airman 1st Class Twyla Williams, 23, of New Orleans stood side-by-side in the greeting line.

“I’ve never done something like this before,” Dorval said. “I like it.”

She said she was excited for the team to finally get to Nagano after all the travel.

After the guests cleared customs and had a quick meal served by volunteers, Col. Mark Schissler, 374th Airlift Wing commander, welcomed them.

“We’re very proud to have you here,” he said. “You have our best wishes for success.”

And when Ray Denny, who also works with the Kanto Plains organization, asked “Who’s gonna kick butt at the games?”, the answer came booming from the jet-lagged athletes.

“USA,” they shouted.

Special Olympics facts

Special Olympics is an international movement dedicated to empowering people with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and athletic competition.

The movement involves:

1.5 million athletes, with a goal of 2 million by the end of 2005.More than 200 Special Olympics Programs in 150 countries.26 Olympic-type summer and winter sports.Seven regional offices around the world, including Belgium, China, Egypt, India, Panama, South Africa and the United States.Approximately 500,000 volunteers.More than 140,000 coaches.More than 20,000 competitions around the world each year.For more information about Special Olympics, visit www.specialolympics.org. For more information about the 2005 Special Olympics World Winter Games, visit www.2005sowwg.com.

Source: Special Olympics


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