Six northwest Ohioans are among 67 in the state who will compete this week in Ames, Iowa, for the first Special Olympics USA National Games.
"These games are an opportunity to create a national platform for people with intellectual disabilities," said Kirsten Seckler, the director of global communications for Special Olympics World. "We hope it will help change how our nation thinks about people with intellectual disabilities and that communities will begin to show more support for these individuals."
The Special Olympics are open to people with intellectual disabilities ages 8 and over.
The USA Special Olympics developed this year in part because, as the World Special Olympic games have become more international, more of the games have been hosted abroad. That makes it more difficult for U.S. athletes and their coaches and family members to participate, according to Paige Ludwig, assistant director of marketing and development for Special Olympics Ohio.
Darrell Miller, 19, a recent graduate from Arlington High School in Hancock County, will play on the Ohio Special Olympics softball team.
He has played in the Special Olympics Ohio Games for the past four years, competing in softball, basketball, track and field, and, most recently, golf.
He just finished competing in track and field events at the Ohio Special Olympics Summer Games in Columbus last weekend, where he won a gold medal in standing long jump and in the 200-meter dash. He won a bronze medal in a relay race.
One thing he said he loves about softball is "if you get mad, you can hit the ball."
He said making friends on the field is more important than winning.
"You don't have to hang out with anyone that's mean to you. Everyone's nice ... everyone gets along," he said.
June Buttles and Beth Leonard recently adopted Mr. Miller. For the past four years, he has lived in their group home, which supports people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.
"We just connected with him," said Ms. Buttles. "He always seemed like a part of our family, as much a son as he could be if we had him ourselves."
Mr. Miller will have an enormous cheering section in Iowa. More than 35 people from Hancock County will travel to Ames to watch him compete.
Private individuals, corporations, and operators donated their Cessna business jets, pilots, and fuel to transport athletes and coaches to the games, said Marilyn Richwine, vice president at Cessna and the director of the airlift. There are 15 planes transporting the Ohio group on July 1.
Toledo native Billy Ball, 34, will be among Mr. Miller's teammates.
He and Mr. Miller have competed against each other in state competition for the past four years and have become good friends in the process.
"In the Special Olympics there are no enemies, only friends," said Ronald Ball, Billy's father and a frequent coach for the Lucas County Special Olympics softball and basketball teams. "Billy will have friends from across the country when he returns from Ames."
Billy Ball works mornings as a grounds keeper at Flower Hospital in Sylvania, where his nickname is "BAP" - Billy All Purpose - because he helps his co-workers out with everything.
He also plays basketball, runs track, swims, and bowls, and has won 34 gold, 11 silver, and five bronze medals at various Lucas County Special Olympics games.
Grand Rapids, Ohio, resident Katie Ruppert, 16, is one of only four Ohio swimmers participating in the national games. She has been practicing three days a week since March for the nationals.
"I used to keep on lifting my head up ... [but] now I'm working on keeping my head down, breathing to the side and trying to do the best stroke I can," said Ms. Ruppert.
Her younger brother, Jason, 15, started swimming in the Special Olympics when he was 10.
Although she said she and her brother don't get along, she did admit, under her breath, "I wanted to swim because my brother was doing it."
Her mother, Patty Ruppert, said the Special Olympics are as meaningful to her and her husband, Bill, as they are to their two children.
"The games help you meet other parents that are in the same boat as you," said Patty Ruppert. "And it gives the kids a good opportunity to shine, which is really good for their self-esteem and for their development."
Kelly Adams, 34, of Fostoria will compete in doubles and singles tennis. She said what she likes most about the Special Olympics is the "competition and the friendships."
While she also plays basketball, she said she prefers the individuality of tennis.
Napoleon resident Adam Ellerbrock, 19, will swim in Ames. He also plays basketball and softball and runs track. He has another year at Napoleon High School and is working on a mowing crew for the summer.
Samuel Guevara, 57, of Sandusky will travel to Ames as a member of the powerlifting team.
People with intellectual disabilities make up the largest disability population in the world: about 7 million in the United States and more than 170 million worldwide, according to the World Health organization.
Participation in the Special Olympics worldwide has nearly doubled over the past six years, growing from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.25 million in 2006.