His head thrown back, just like the runners he had seen in "Chariots of Fire," John Weidman was a study in exultation as he neared the finish line in the 200-meter dash. No matter that he finished third in a field of three. The important thing was that the 23-year-old man from Kings County, who has Down's syndrome, finished at all in his first state race.
"He usually veers off to one side," explained his proud father as he snapped pictures of the beaming, sweaty athlete. "He never even finished a local race until he saw that movie. It's a thrill for us."
About 2,500 mentally retarded athletes from all parts of the state participated Saturday in nine sports during the 18th California Special Olympics at UCLA, a prelude to next summer's international games in Indiana. They were grouped both by age and ability to ensure that everybody won or came close, and reminded of the Special Olympics motto: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
Headed by decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, the California Special Olympics is a chapter of an international program of sports training and competition created by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and headed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
And, despite public misperceptions, it is not a once-a-year event, not just for children, and not for the physically handicapped. It offers daily sports activities for mentally retarded young people, beginning at age 8, and adults, many of whom may also have physical disabilities. The oldest participant Saturday was a 68-year-old woman who competed in the softball throw.