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Special athletes ready to meet Olympic test


Dann Poling, surrounded by some of his awards, will be in the northwest Ohio delegation at the Special Olympics precursor.

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Like any serious athlete, Dann Poling has been preparing both mentally and physically for his challenge today.

He has trained tirelessly - on the weekends, in the evenings, and in the spare hours at work - for a 30-meter dash that will be over in just seconds.

Now he's ready.

"Oh, I'm going to win," he said, grinning confidently and tapping his Ranger II Storm Series motorized wheelchair. "Or at least they'll know that I'm there."

"When I have this thing outside," he said of the wheelchair, "it's cranked."

Mr. Poling, 40, and more than four dozen others from northwest Ohio will join about 250 competitors in Mansfield today to compete in Ohio's 25th annual Special Olympics Developmental Sports Day.

Competitors have been training for eight weeks for the event, a precursor to the Special Olympics summer games next month. Today's competitions, which range from wheelchair slaloms to tennis ball throws to bowling ball rolls, involves more profoundly mentally retarded or physically disabled men, women, and children as young as 8 years old.

For these athletes, even simple tasks that most take for granted - like walking 25 meters - can be grueling.

"There's an inability to process information from the brain to the body," said Jennifer Adams, recreational coordinator for the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. "They know what they want to do, but it's difficult to send that message from the brain to the arms or the legs."

Sometimes, it's not about the gold medals. Simply finishing an event is often a victory, said Erie County's local coordinator Jo Miller.

"A lot of them have been included in [non-specialized] schools and in other places, but they know they can't compete on the same level as some of the other kids," she said. "This gives them this amazing sense of accomplishment."

Perhaps. Or maybe it's just fun. Ask Kim Gadd.

The 40-year-old Erie County resident has trained each weekend at Perkins High School's track in Sandusky for her events: the softball throw and the 50-meter walk.

Ms. Gadd's "best" event?

"Every single thing," she said.

Her "favorite" event?

"Every single thing."

There's another reason behind today's event, said Paige Ludwig, of Special Olympics Ohio. The eight weeks of training, including regional meets, pulls participants from what can too easily become their inactive daily routines.

Because of the event, they're meeting other competitors, getting out into the community, getting to better know their "coaches," Ms. Ludwig said.

Reuben Garcia can attest to that.

Like Mr. Poling, Mr. Garcia, 35, relies on a wheelchair, in part, because of cerebral palsy, a condition in which brain damage impairs motor function and control. The two men knew each other as boys and now they work together at Lott Industries' Telegraph Road plant. There, among other duties, they are responsible for assembling auto parts, like splash guards.

Mr. Garcia says he keeps in contact with the folks he meets at the competitions through e-mail.

"I'm a very popular guy in these programs," he said, as he and Mr. Poling took a break from their work in the Lott cafeteria. His old friend and co-worker rolled his eyes.

"Let's put it this way, we both are," Mr. Poling said, as he hot-dogged around lunchroom tables, spinning wildly in circles and sending the wheelchair motor into a high-pitched whir.

Mr. Garcia shook his head. Earlier this week, he said, Mr. Poling was training during a break and nearly ran over a Lott supervisor. He shrugged.

"Hey, we told them to get out of the way," he said. "We're training here to win."

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