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Let the games begin - Special Olympics underway at Mill Creek
Special Olympics
A Special Olympics athlete gets a helping hand Friday night at Mill Creek Park during opening ceremonies for the Georgia Special Olympics Fall Games. The athlete lit the torch for the games, which will run all weekend at Mill Creek Park. - photo by KATHY KENNEDY/Special to the Herald

    Mill Creek Park was filled with thousands of smiles Friday night as the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Special Olympics Fall Games paved the way for a weekend filled with fun activities for disabled and special education athletes.
    More than 2,000 athletes and their coaches from across Georgia came to compete this weekend in softball, bocce, cycling, golf, long distance running and walking at Mill Creek Park. Athletes began competing Friday morning.
    Sea Island Bank CEO and President Wayne Akins welcomed  the crowd, and introduced the Statesboro Cheer South All Stars, who gave a spirited performance.
    Sen. Jack Hill welcomed the crowd, recognizing state Rep. Bob Lane as a guest and introducing local radio personality Nate Hirsch, master of ceremonies.
    “Athletes have pursued joy through Special Olympics for 38 years,” Hirsch said. “You have taught us about courage and bravery. These games are about you. Be confident and truly be brave in your attempt to do your best.”
    A parade of athletes followed, led by grand marshal Fred Stokes, former Georgia Southern University football star (1982-86) who played for the Los Angeles Rams before being traded to the Washington Redskins, with whom he played when they won  the 1992 Super Bowl.
    Stokes is now a motivational speaker.
    An especially moving speech by Special Olympics Global Messenger Lewis Gordon, who has been an athlete for 22 years playing softball, basketball, bowling and more.
    “Being a global messenger means I get to travel the  globe to share the message and the spirit of Special Olympics,” he said. “Special Olympics brought us all here tonight to celebrate.”
    This brought cheers from the crowd, made up with family members, coaches and athletes involved in the games.
    Linda Modawell from Forsyth County came with her family, including daughter Lauren, 18, and son Ryder, 15. Both suffer from a neuromuscular disease similar to muscular dystrophy, and both compete in Special Olympics.
    “This is our first state games event,” she said. “This means everything to us ... our kids feel totally included, and get to try things they normally wouldn’t get to be  part of.”
    Lauren was enthusiastic in talking about Special Olympics.
    “It gets me a chance to work on strengthening my arms,” she said, talking about competing in bocce. “Bocce in Italian means ‘kiss,’ because the balls kiss.”
    Competitors throw balls in an attempt to have the ball land as close to a smaller ball as possible, she said.
    “Me and my brother get to work as a team,” she said. “I’m good at it, too.”
    Lauren and her brother’s neuromuscular disease is rare, and there isn’t a name for it yet, she said.
    She had nothing but praise for Special Olympics, which she said “helps kids realize that they’re not that different,” she said. “They’re accepted, where they might not feel accepted” elsewhere.
    After the parade of athletes and Gordon’s opening remarks, a presentation of colors and national anthem, during which the GSU mascot eagle Freedom flew overhead, was followed by entertainment by the ATA Black Belt Academy and the official “lighting of the torch.”
    Games will continue through Sunday at various locations.