Anna Brooke Shipley put her right arm around Jessica Sierra as the two broke into similarly wide smiles Saturday morning.
"This is my friend," Shipley said. "We do everything together."
Then the 15-year-old Sierra and 19-year-old Shipley ran off to compete in the 46th annual Area 4 Special Olympics Lloyd Ray Smith Spring Games at Red Bank High School, hopeful of winning but hugely happy regardless of the results.
"We call them the Down's Duo," said Rick Rogers, who's worked for more than two decades with special needs students at Central High School. "They love to dance. Anything they see on TV they'll attempt to do. We had a dance not long ago and they danced for four straight hours. They're amazing."
Because such a nickname as Down's Duo could conceivably offend, someone asked Anna Brooke's mother, Deborah, if she was bothered by it.
"Not a bit," she said. "I'm just so happy that they've become so close. And we're thrilled that Anna Brooke is able to participate in something like this. As a parent, you want to see your child excel. This event lets the light shine on them."
Perhaps no Area 4 Special Olympics athlete has had the light shine on him more than Joe Schoocraft, now 36 but still competing in team sports such as golf and basketball. But when he's not adding to his own overflowing awards collectio,n he's helping coach the younger crowd.
"He wants to give something back," said his mother, Judy.
There are those such as radio personality Jim Reynolds, the Voice of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs, who have given back for decades, his annual turn as the spring games' public-address announcer one of the event's highlights.
Then there are those such as UTC senior defensive end Davis Tull, the Southern Conference's two-time defensive player of the year, who were experiencing this for the first time, despite having a 3:30 p.m. final exam in Exercise Science on Saturday.
"I've still got time to study," he said at 11 a.m. "This is just a great thing for us to be a part of. Any time we can help with something like this, we should."
Tull teammate Taharin Tyson began helping with Special Olympics while still a student at Alcoa (Tenn.) High School.
"I had a friend in high school, Raheem Lewis, who was a special needs student," Tyson explained. "We eventually put him on our football team. So this has always been important to me."
Saturday seemed more important to more special athletes than in some previous springs. The 387 registered to participate were up more than 100 from two years ago. Volunteers remained high, everyone from the UTC football team to a large number of athletes from East Hamilton High School to various civic organizations and dedicated individuals such as local attorney Jerry Summers, who's helped out for nearly every one of the 46 Area 4 Games.
Yet even as the sun shone and the thermometer inched toward 80 degrees, Area 4 director Judy Rogers must still fight clouds of complacency and cooling support.
"We're holding our own," she said. "But I still need help to send 15 athletes to the national games in New Jersey this summer. We've got a basketball team, a swimmer, a bocce player, a golfer, a bowler and a track and field athlete, and we've got to come up with $12,000 to send them."
There's never enough money these days for much of anything. And sending a check to Special Olympics isn't like contributing to the University of Tennessee athletic department in hopes of returning the Vols football team to the upper echelon of the SEC. It won't bring 100,000 people to their feet in unified joy, though it might remind you of what sports should be about.
"Anna Brooke and Jessica are so supportive of Central High football and basketball -- all the sports, really," Rick Rogers said of the Down's Duo. "They don't care what the score is -- they just want to support Pounder sports."
Jessica's mother, Julie Mader, gave details of that love for the beauty rather than the beast of sports.
"She loves UT," Mader said as Jessica shouted, "Yes, I do! If it's Tennessee, I don't care what team it is."
Yet Mader quickly added, "She's actually torn between Tennessee and Alabama because one of her favorite teachers, Julie Henderson, is a huge Alabama fan. So now she cheers for both."
And you thought no such person existed.
However, it's the lengths they sometimes go to in order to compete that may set Special Olympians apart the most.
"I was watching the wheelchair races this morning and there was this one guy, Shane Thompson, whose whole athletic ability was using his index finger to drive his wheelchair 30 meters down the track," Rick Rogers said. "He's competing with one finger, but he's giving it all he's got. There's a story like that here every year that makes you realize why this is so important."
Meanwhile, Red Bank High School's Nick Scott was proudly carrying the blue ribbon he'd won in the 50-meter sprint.
"I wanted to do this with my friends," he said. "But one's sick, one's out of town and one got in trouble. But I've still got my family here for support."
An avid football and basketball fan, Scott was asked who is his favorite athlete, the expectation being that the names of LeBron James, Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning might soon exit his lips.
Said Scott: "My buddy, Tyrone Day."
A few feet away, Kristi Totherow, who's taught special needs kids at Red Bank Middle School for 30 years, smiled and said, "We work all year for this one day."
When the light shines on athletes such as Scott, Thompson and the Down's Duo, it's easy to see why.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...