Special Olympics athletes go for it in regional track meet
Joplin Globe - 4/10/2019
April 10-- Apr. 10--CARTHAGE, Mo. -- Halfway through the 100-meter walk, Payton Littlejohn looked up to the stands and waved at the group of family, friends and coaches that was cheering her on, encouraging her to "sway those hips" and "keep on moving" as she pushed on to complete the final 50 meters.
Payton, a ninth-grader at Lamar High School, was competing for the first time in the regional Special Olympics track meet put on Tuesday at Carthage High School'sDavid Haffner Stadium. Payton traveled with seven other athletes from the Lamar squad, which was formed this year.
"It meant a lot to see everyone cheering for me," Payton said after finishing the 100-meter walk. "I think it went pretty good, but it was tiring."
Payton has Williams syndrome, which can affect the body's blood flow, making something like the 100 meter walk an exhausting event. She also competed in the T-ball throw later in the day.
"I'm looking forward to that because it's easier," she said.
Kristin Whitton is the coach of the Lamar team and is in her first year of teaching special education. Special Olympics is the charity of choice for Missouri student councils, and Whitton said the Lamar council wanted to do more to support the organization this year by creating a track and field team.
"We saw a need in our schools for our special needs kids who wanted a place to shine and be a part of our team, and we thought this would be a wonderful way to celebrate this group of kiddos," Whitton said. "It's also a great opportunity for our community to come together and support them."
The team this year was composed only of high school students, but Whitton said next year the team will incorporate athletes from grades three to 12.
"We want to reach a broader group of kids, and the younger ones can have somebody to look up to that is like them," Whitton said. "Many of our athletes support our sports teams, and it's exciting to be able to return the favor and now support them."
Kelsey Stenger, a Carthage teacher and sponsor of the student council, said last year's inaugural meet went smoothly, and having a year of experience under their belts helped make this year's meet run even more efficiently. Stenger wanted to bring a meet to Carthage last year after having been involved with Special Olympics during her college years.
"It was a huge undertaking last year and we really had no idea what we were doing in a sense, but all of the students did a great job," Stenger said. "I believe that if you put some trust in kids and you give them a job, a lot of times they will surprise you, and they received so many compliments last year."
As teams from area schools rolled in Tuesday morning, Vernon Wagoner, a senior at Carthage High School, was getting hyped for the 100-meter walk and softball throw that he'd compete in.
"This gives me a chance to be with friends and have fun," Wagoner said of the meet and Special Olympics as a whole. "My strategy is to go with the flow and give it my best."
Wagoner began competing in Special Olympics in elementary school and said he's "kind of" competitive.
"I don't care if I win or lose," Wagoner said. "I mostly just want to enjoy it and have fun."
Upward of 100 athletes from six districts -- Carl Junction, Webb City, Bolivar, East Newton, Lamar and Carthage -- competed in the meet, and Lamar had an impressive showing, with every athlete taking home at least one medal. As for Payton Littlejohn? She took a first place in both of her events.
The track meet Tuesday was distinctive in that it was operated entirely by student volunteers, whereas most Special Olympics meets have adult volunteers. Students from the Carthage High School student council were on hand to help rake the sand pits, time runners and tabulate scores.
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