The teen sprinters stood ready at the starting line, battling any pre-race jitters they might have had as they eyed the 100-yard straightaway ahead of them on the University at Buffalo Stadium track Saturday morning.
Matthew Bressette, 15, from the Town of Tonawanda, had something else in mind. So he walked up to one of his competitors.
“Hi, I’m Matthew, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Todd,” the other runner replied.
“I told Todd, ‘Be good in the race,’ ” Matthew recalled later.
That’s the spirit of the Special Olympics, and that’s why they call Matthew “The Mayor,” both at Kenmore East High School and among his family and friends.
The Special Olympics brought some 1,800 athletes and coaches to Western New York on Friday and Saturday to compete in eight Olympic-style sports: track and field, aquatics, basketball, bowling, powerlifting, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics.
Officials with the Special Olympics stressed that these are well-trained athletes, who have qualified in local and regional competitions and undergone at least 12 weeks of training in their sport. Medals are earned and not just given to each athlete for participation.
But then you talk to athletes like Matthew and accomplished runner William Clarke, 20, from Saratoga Springs, and you learn all about the thrill of competing.
Matthew’s parents, Betsy and Fred Bressette, love telling the story about the time their son, at age 8, won a first-place ribbon in the 50-yard dash. His family was celebrating with him, showering him with congratulations, when Matthew put a temporary end to the celebration to watch the next race on the track.
“He was clapping, and then he said, ‘They run fast, just like me,’ ” his father recalled.
Clarke has run the 1,500 meters, or metric mile, in 5:08, meaning that he’s a strong runner.
“I’m just here to have fun,” he said. “I don’t care whether I come in first or last. You come in first, whoop-de-do. It’s not like you found a cure for cancer.”
But doesn’t someone who runs that fast long for the competitive edge in the Special Olympics?
“On the outside, I’m running against other people,” Clarke replied. “On the inside, I’m running against myself.”
Special Olympics officials consider Clarke one of their greatest success stories. As a youth, he was very quiet and shy about talking about himself. Now they can’t shut him up. And they say his family and coaches attribute much of that self-confidence to the Special Olympics.
He agreed, saying it has improved his “inner person.”
“A disability is not a reason to stop you from doing what you want to do with your life,” he added. “People should dwell on the things we can do.”
Renee Snyder, vice president of development for Special Olympics New York, said that about 4 percent of people with intellectual disabilities work in a non-sheltered environment. For Special Olympians, the figure is about 40 percent.
“It says that Special Olympics really gives our athletes the independence, dignity and self-esteem to be successful in life,” she added.
All Special Olympians have some kind of developmental disability, with some being completely able-bodied. There are multiple Special Olympics divisions, based on people’s age and ability. Some of these athletes have run marathons or shot a hole-in-one or bowled a perfect game.
“Our athletes earn their rewards and accolades,” Snyder emphasized. “Every athlete out on the court or the track is a winner, for getting this far. But they also earn any awards they get.”
But Betsy Bressette, Matthew’s mother, talked about the importance of the “social piece” for her son, as seen in Matthew’s search for new friends, even at the starting line of a race.
These young people know who wins each event, but it’s a momentary experience, Fred Bressette said. Then they’re on to the next race or event. “If you walk around and watch these kids compete, they’re all smiling,” he observed.
“This is the chance to perform in front of other people and show what they can do. It’s the chance to perform athletically, just like everybody else.”
Like many other families, the Bressettes have turned the Special Olympics into a family affair, with Matthew, his parents and his younger siblings, John and Claire.
After Matthew – described by his father as “socially fearless” – ran in the 100-yard dash and competed in the shot put, it was time to attend to his mayoral duties, pressing the flesh and even slapping the back of one new friend.
His brother John was watching, with a big smile on his face, as he quipped, “After all this, he should be running for Congress.”