Disabled Athletes Give Olympics Their All

Photo: Participant Titor Sandee (left) and Ann Taglieri from the Vacaville Police Department watch as the torch is lit during the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony Friday evening at Haas Pavilion. This year, the games drew more than 900 athletes.
Keiko Tanaka/Photo
Participant Titor Sandee (left) and Ann Taglieri from the Vacaville Police Department watch as the torch is lit during the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony Friday evening at Haas Pavilion. This year, the games drew more than 900 athletes.

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Photo: Athletes participate in the 50-meter men's breaststroke, one of the aquatics events for the Special Olympics at the Spieker Aquatic Complex on Saturday.   

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Samantha Corriea looked like any other nervous but excited athlete as she and her teammates prepared to run the 4 by 100 meter relay around the track at Edwards Stadium Sunday afternoon.

But Corriea, who is developmentally disabled, was competing in the Special Olympics of Northern California's Summer Games, which were hosted at UC Berkeley last weekend.

Twenty-year-old Richmond resident Corriea, who has been participating in the Special Olympics since she was 14, took home two gold medals in the 100-and 200-meter dashes and a silver medal in shot put this weekend.

But the outgoing, friendly girl who sat in the stands joking with her teammates had once been much more quiet and reserved.

"She was having a hard time in school. Kids were teasing her," said Sandra Corriea, Samantha's mother. "Since she's been here she's been a new person."

The Special Olympics is an international program that provides athletic training and competition opportunities in Olympic-type sports to the developmentally disabled. This year, the Northern California Summer Games drew more than 900 athletes who competed in track and field events, swimming events, tennis, volleyball and bocce ball.

One of the most important ways the program helps developmentally disabled people is by providing a support network of people who are like them, said Glen Rockeman, head coach of the Special Olympics team from Richmond and Corriea's coach.

"They're all friends. We're kind of a close-knit family," Rockeman said.

Rockeman, who is the father of a disabled child, helped to found the Richmond chapter nine years ago along with several other parents of disabled students. Besides training for the Summer Games, the team plays sports together year-round, including basketball, soccer, swimming and snowshoeing.

Sandra Corriea said the program has been valuable in allowing her daughter to make new friends.

"Nobody judges her for her disability, so she's able to fit in," Sandra Corriea said. "She's got all kinds of friends, and they're all here."

Leona Young, Samantha Corriea's grandmother, said the program has also helped Samantha Corriea build confidence because of how many other members of the team have come to view her.

"It's allowed her to become a leader," Young said. "She helps with anybody who needs help."

Stone Chandler IV, whose son is on the Richmond team, said the Special Olympics provides a niche for his son, Stone Chandler V.

"Some kids are very shy. In this venue they tend to open up and be more accepting because they feel at home," Stone Chandler IV said. "It's definitely made a significance in life."

Stone Chandler V took home a silver medal in the long jump this weekend.

But the participants are not the only people whose lives are affected by the Special Olympics. Many of the coaches and volunteers are as well, said Tom Morelli, who met his wife, Polly Morelli through volunteering for the Pleasanton Special Olympics chapter.

"The only thing that counts is to do your best and have fun," said Tom Morelli, who has been volunteering with the Special Olympics for nearly 40 years.

Participants, coaches and volunteers alike said the experience is enriched by everybody who participates.

"The people involved are wonderful," said Rockeman. "I'm going to continue to do this until the day I die."


Jacqueline Johnston is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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