With a red ribbon already pinned to his purple T-shirt thanks to his 50-meter wheelchair race performance, William Toney was all smiles at Saturday's Area 4 Special Olympics Spring Games.
"This is my fifth year," the 17-year-old Central High School student said as he rested on the edge of the McCallie School track. "I'm really excited."
A few feet away stood his mother, Latisha, and his father, Harris. When William was just six weeks old he contracted bacterial meningitis. He soon was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He's been confined to a wheelchair ever since.
"This gives William an opportunity to compete," Latisha Toney said. "He's a very competitive person, and this provides a more even playing field."
McCallie's Spears Stadium track and football field were pretty evenly divided between the 308 athletes and a similar number of volunteers -- including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team, East Hamilton's baseball players and a couple of hundred coaches, parents and volunteers.
And UTC's Mocs were scheduled to kick off their spring game less than four hours after the 45th Area 4 Games began.
"What a day for our athletes," Area 4 chairman Judy Rogers said as she put a hand over her eyes to shield them from the cloudless morning. "It's not too hot, it's not too cold. It's perfect."
It got off to a perfectly emotional start in the wake of the Friday night arrest of the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. The Choo Choo Chorus's rendition of the national anthem choked up more than a few in the crowd, including Rogers.
"It made me cry," she said. "It was so emotional."
Added UTC junior football player Nick Pollard: "Every time a crisis like this happens in our country, it gives you a definition of who we are as people. We come together. This is what makes us Americans. This [opening ceremony] was a great thing to be a part of."
Ginger Guilbert has been a part of Area 4 Games, in her word, "forever." Now 44, she competed in both the softball toss and the 50-meter walk.
Sarah Simpkins, 17, was competing in her fourth Spring Games and hoping her pregames breakfast at McDonald's would help her add to her hefty career awards total.
"They're on a shelf above my [bedroom] closet," she said of her ribbons. "I look at them every day after school."
With the economy still soft and charitable giving uneven, there have been concerns over the future of Special Olympics. But Rogers said the organization is holding its own as it continues to find new sources of revenue.
"We just made $6,000 from the Polar Plunge this winter at Chester Frost Park," she said, "and the Rugby Club basically put on the whole thing for us. We had 60 participants and we never dreamed it would be that successful. So we feel good about the future."
For Toney, the immediate future concerns rooting his Los Angeles Lakers on to victory in the NBA playoffs, beginning with today's postseason opener against the San Antonio Spurs.
"I love the Lakers," said William, who also closely follows Duke and Tennessee during the college hoops season. "I'm a West Coast kind of guy."
Central High principal Finley King said young Toney is, first and foremost, a people kind of guy.
"Out of 1,000 kids at our school, I don't know a single one who doesn't know and like William," King said. "Visiting with William is always one of the highlights of my day."
Especially when that day includes watching him win a ribbon in the Area 4 Spring Games.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...