ENKENBACH-ALSENBORN, Germany — Countless faces sported huge smiles at the Kaiserslautern Special Olympics May 12 at the German Police Academy.
Neither the dreary overcast skies nor the unseasonable cold could dim the smiles of the 800 athletes who participated in the games and the 1,650 volunteers who made it all possible. The athletes, between the ages of 8 and 70, came from 58 schools and institutions throughout Germany, including 19 Department of Defense Dependents Schools, Europe.
The Special Olympics, an international program of athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, was hosted by the U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern for its 27th year. As in the past 11 years, they were co-hosted by and held at the grounds of the German Police Academy in Enkenbach-Alsenborn.
"This wonderful event demonstrates the great partnership we have with the police academy," said Mark Heeter, the public affairs officer at USAG-K. He explained that the hosts tackled an incredible amount of planning and coordination to make this a first-class event.
"In the end, everyone was a winner. In the end, even the sun smiled on us - for about five minutes or so," he said.
Many Special Olympians, including 16-year-old Holger Jotter, a student at the Siegmund-Craemer-School in Bad Duerkheim, Germany, wore smiles - smiles that certainly outlasted and outshone the sun.
"He is having so much fun, it's contagious. He played softball and then we stood in line for three competitions, but he changed his mind. He is having fun just seeing everyone and feeling the incredible atmosphere, this incredible excitement," said his buddy, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Scott Noggle, a network administrator with the Air Force at Ramstein Air Base.
Volunteer buddies simultaneously fill the role of personal coach, cheerleader and friend for the event. Noggle, who has been active with the games since 1992, relied on smiles, touch and gestures to communicate with Jotter. Nonetheless, he declared it a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.
"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." The oath of the Special Olympics was enthusiastically celebrated by countless athletes. Participation would garner them a ribbon - and with the choice of track and field, soccer, badminton, softball, tennis, basketball, and volleyball - numerous athletes sported impressive collections of them. For the 5- to 7-year-olds, a number of non-competitive games provided fun and excitement.
If the athletes showed all-out enthusiasm, so did the volunteers. Encouragement, cheering and praise were passionately and loudly expressed everywhere. The athletes with their joyous smiles and eager enthusiasm and the volunteers with their compassionate encouragement and exuberant cheering put the "special" into the Special Olympics.
Not quite 18-year-old Mariah Bastin, a student at Ramstein High School, is another regular. Inspired by her 11-year-old brother, Stirling Bastin, who is a student at REHA Westpfalz Schule in Landstuhl, Germany, she said, "It's just amazing to see so many people who compete wholeheartedly despite their disabilities. It is awesome how they deal with their circumstances, how happy they are and how much fun they have."
Luca Mathieu, also 11 and a classmate of Stirling, made another point. The Special Olympics would not be near as special without the Americans, he explained.
"They are so nice and very loud when they clap and cheer. It makes me smile," he said. A volunteer for the past 14 years, Sgt. Maj. Mariano Alvarez, the 21st Theater Sustainment Command's supply and logistics directorate sergeant major, handed out medals to the athletes.
"This is what soldiers do. You assist wherever you can. You give back to the community," said Alvarez. "But the Special Olympics are always very special. To see so much joy and determination in the face of adversity makes you realize how lucky you are."
"The looks - the smiles on their faces - is the most rewarding part," he added.
The Special Olympics, which began in 1968 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver organized the First International Special Olympics Games at Soldier Field in Chicago, were brought to Kaiserslautern by Sarah Bican a DODDS teacher in 1974