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Turlock athletes shine at Special Olympics
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Stanislaus County athlete and Turlock resident TJ Wootten shows off his jumping skills during the long jump event while fellow team member Ellie Brown cheers from the sideline at the Regional Special Olympics held Saturday in Modesto. - photo by OSCAR COPLAND/The Journal

The 44th annual Regional Special Olympics held Saturday at John F. Kennedy School in Modesto was an exciting event for all of the athletes who competed, but for Ellie Brown it was an especially meaningful day. The 26-year-old Turlock resident and key athlete of the Stanislaus team celebrated a major milestone — her 10th year participating in the Special Olympics program.

Brown had a busy day as she competed in the 100-meter run, the shot put, and her least favorite event, the long jump.

“It’s so hard to tell, I just love all of them,” Brown said when asked what her favorite event was. “Well except for the long jump, I don’t really like the landing on my feet.”

Brown was just one of the over 150 athletes of all ages from Mariposa, Merced and Stanislaus counties who came together to participate in the annual track and field event.

The Regional Special Olympics are held yearly and rotates among the three counties every three years, with Stanislaus County having the honor this year of hosting the games.

Stanislaus County Special Olympics Area Director John Wray, kicked off the event by welcoming the athletes and coaches from visiting counties and thanking the special guests, volunteers, and audience who had shown up to support the local athletes.

Among the special guests were Stanislaus County Sherriff Adam Christianson and Captain Julian Irigoyen from the California Highway Patrol, who was accompanied by the CHP’s very own Chippers. The law enforcement officers were present throughout the event, waiting at the finish line to cheer on and high-five the athletes and help pass out the medals and ribbons to all the participants.  

The event’s opening ceremony featured Stanislaus County athletes’ participation with Eric Hawkins reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and Kenny O’lea reciting the Special Olympics Oath.

No Olympics ever officially start without the traditional torch run, and the Special Olympics is no exception. Klaus Landsberg from Mariposa and Denae Jones from Merced participated in the torch run, with Stanislaus’ Pedro Sandoval starting the run and Cristobal Barajas ending it.

The athletes were split up into different groups based on the athletes’ abilities. Each group participated in a series of track and field events unique to the athletes, varying from the 50-meter run or walk event to the 25-meter wheelchair event.

“We have games that match the athletes’ abilities,” Wray said. “The games are pretty much the standard games with the rules like you would see at a high school or college level meet.”

Turlock was well-represented in Olympics, making up 25 percent of the Stanislaus team.

This year’s Olympics marked Turlock athlete TJ Wootten’s seventh year participating in the games. He initially started back when he was only eight years old and is now 13, with his birthday just around the corner.

Wootten said his previous experience prepared him for this year’s games and helped him keep his eyes on the prize, “I love winning the medals because I love running.”

There were no losers at the Olympics, as everyone who participated was rewarded for their determination and effort with not only medals but also endless support from the audience, family members and their fellow athletes.

Stanislaus County track coach and parent to a Stanislaus athlete Lucia Soares enjoys seeing the athletes from different counties come together and support each other.

“My favorite part is the comradery that the athletes have with each other,” Soares said. “This is their venue to be involved and to feel successful that they have done something, while building friendships with people they enjoy.”

Although the earning of the medals and ribbons is a sweet reward for these hardworking athletes, they are all there to have fun and try their best. After all, they all follow and recite the Special Olympics Oath, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Brown and Wootten gave it their all during the games, and both left home with several medals rewarding their accomplishments, but most importantly their motivation and great spirits.

The Regional Special Olympics may have come to an end, but now the Stanislaus team can train and look forward to the State Special Olympics held at the University of California, Davis during summer.