ANDOVER — More than 150 special education students from Andover and North Andover took to Lovely Field Tuesday morning to show off their talents and compete for medals at the Special Olympics School Day Games.
It was the second year Andover has participated in the games and its first year hosting. Students from grades preschool to post-graduation participated in a number of events including a tennis ball throw, standing and running long jump, bowling, javelin throw and a 50-yard and 25-yard dash.
The parade of athletes and torch run kicked-off the event, as all participating athletes promenaded around the track with an escort from state troopers and SWAT team members. Waving to parents and others in attendance to watch the games, the athletes received cheers and applause to pump them up for the events.
Special Olympian Jimmy Keith, 21, a member of the Andover and North Andover collaborative Transition Opportunities Program, or TOPS, was chosen to carry the torch and lead the crowd in the parade.
He was selected for the honorary role by Cara Higgins, a teaching assistant at West Elementary School and the person responsible for combining the event in North Andover with Andover two years ago. Higgins said she chose Keith because he competes in Special Olympics across the country and is a part of the New England Revolution for Special Olympics.
"This is my last Special Olympics Game Day," said Keith. "But win or lose, let's have fun."
Keith has been participating in the games since he was eight years old. His mother, Kathy Keith, started the games in North Andover 18 years ago.
Though Keith will close out his time participating in the game days after Tuesday, he will still remain a Special Olympian, which is a recognized sport with the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, or MIAA.
Terry Keilty, vice president of community development for Special Olympics, said the sport is not only recognized, but also unified, which means there are individuals with and without disabilities that participate. Keilty organized 44 school game days across the state this year.
Higgins started the event in North Andover two years ago and continues to put her efforts toward hosting it each year, crediting one North Andover student named Matthew Harty for her work. Harty passed away several years ago, but not before he was involved for many years in the Special Olympics. Higgins said he inspired her to get involved and organize the local event.
"He's the reason I do it," said Higgins. "It's a really important day to me. ... This is a huge community event to highlight all our special education students can do."
The day is so significant to Higgins, she even had her own children take the day off from school to join her other family members in supporting the event.
During the opening ceremonies, North Andover student Zane Perry said the Pledge of Allegiance and Andover student Michael Straceski recited the Oath of Athletes. North Andover student Ivanna Zamorra amazed the crowd with her voice in her performance of the national anthem. Following closing remarks from Higgins, the games began.
William Jordan, 19, a member of TOPS, said his favorite event was the tennis ball throw. Aside from spending time with his friends and watching others enjoy the day, he liked to show off his strong arm during the event.
"I can throw really hard, and really far," he said. Jordan has also participated in the games since he was 8 years old.
Over on the track, North Andover student Ivy Usuomon, 20, took home first place in the 50-yard dash. Though she said it felt good to claim the top spot in the event, she was mainly happy to spend the day outside having fun with her friends.
"I love doing the dash because I'm really fast," she said.
Andover Superintendent Sheldon Berman, sporting a blue T-shirt like all other Andover athletes, said the games are an important event that highlights the special education athletes and bring the community together. With about 80 Andover High School students in attendance to volunteer, he said it created a sense of inclusion among the students.
"It's a way to say we include and support everyone," he said. "And it's another important step for us in addressing students with disabilities. ... It's really a celebration."
Athletic Director Bill Martin said it is a great community event for which they have a lot of support. Martin, who started his position in Andover two years ago, said he was fortunate enough to start a program at Sharon High School and wanted to continue to grow the unified sports programs here.
There were 75 Andover students and about 70 North Andover students at the games. The day also included face painting and music under the tent called "Olympic Town," which Higgins said served as a quieter atmosphere so as not to overwhelm some of the students.
As part of a kindness project, students from Kittredge Elementary School in North Andover provided water bottles with inspiring messages for the Special Olympians, giving them an extra nudge of motivation while also keeping them hydrated and cool in between events.