The emphasis was on overcoming obstacles, not winning ribbons. Just being there, running and jumping with abandon on that pylon-littered grass field in Lakewood, seemed enough for the 400 retarded youngsters.
Their joy, from the time they warmed up with wild arm-flailing versions of jumping jacks, was uncontainable.
The team from Mayfair High, one of 19 schools represented at the Melbourne School for the Trainable Mentally Retarded's 16th annual track meet Thursday, looked sharp in blue T-shirts. It was ready. Victor Guitierrez and Ramon Fernandez, both 15, engaged in a flurry of high-fives and patted each other's cheeks.
One of the Mayfair members loosening up had the look of an athlete and the admiration of his teammates.
"I'm doin' good, how you doin'?" said Jess Porter, 19, tall, lean and autistic.
'I'm Ready to Run'
"Jess is the best runner," said Tim Kennedy, 18.
"I'm ready to run," said Porter, "if I have the time."
A band played the Flintstones theme and the "Hokey Pokey." Guitierrez ate a rapidly melting chocolate bar, despite warnings from his teachers that his waistline would be further expanded.
Then he went right out and shined in the sun: He jumped 4 feet 8 inches.
Some of the participants, who ranged in age from 3 to 21, are also physically impaired. But all were required to compete in each of the events--shuttle run, long jump, soccer dribble, batting, obstacle course, Frisbee throw, basket toss and marathon.
Youngsters aimed a Frisbee at Hula Hoops affixed to a chain-link fence. Landing the disc inside a hoop was worth one, three or five points. Some sailed high over the fence, landing on a blacktop playground. But Mayfair's Juan Varela, 18, nailed the five ring with consistency. "Good job, Juan," praised the volunteer officials, and Varela's day was made.
The reward for Mary Crowley, an adapted physical education specialist and meet coordinator, will hopefully come, she said, this summer when Varela, using this skill he has learned, plays with a Frisbee at home.
The soccer dribble presented a problem for those in wheelchairs. So while being pushed by a volunteer, they used a hockey stick instead of their feet to nudge a ball around three pylons on a 25-foot-long course.
With a well-muscled left arm, Greg Morton, 19, a deaf student at Pace School in Bellflower, worked his stick. Smiling all the way, he gave the ball a last solid tap and was applauding by the time he reached the finish line.
Students Spurred On
At the shuttle run, the students, spurred on by Wendy Purvine, the event's volunteer chairwoman, ran without regard to their lack of coordination.
"Run, run, run, run, run!" urged Purvine, and Marlena Ruffin, 10, of the Mendenhall School in Garden Grove, took off toward a pylon 30 yards away. Surprisingly, she stopped when she reached the pylon, returning only when she heard cries of "Come back, come back."
"They look like they don't understand anything," Purvine said. "But they know . . . and they love every minute of it. This is their chance."
Joe Hill, 16, of Pace School, despite unfluid legs, threatened to run out from under the helmet he has to wear because he sometimes has seizures.
"Faster, faster, faster, faster!" Purvine shouted as Joe touched the pylon and started back. He pounded over the grass, kicking up the sand beneath it, and crossed the finish line with a happiness that was almost unbearable--to him and those who watched him.
He sat down and was given a drink of water by his proud sister, Tina Albritton, who said, "He's been excited about this since 6 this morning."
Nine Shots in a Row
Over at the basket toss, Wendy Wheeler, 17, of the Columbus School in Downey, stood a few feet from a can and with an underhand delivery made nine shots in a row.
As the youngsters waited to be escorted to their next event, they would talk excitedly: "I beat you. . . . " "Did you see me?" "What are we going to do next?"
Jess Porter was doing very well. He jumped 7 feet 6 inches. And he ran like a gazelle, easily outdistancing his competitors.
At the batting station, a whiffle ball was set atop a tee and the batters aimed at a fence that had numbers attached. Porter swung hard on his first attempt but sent the tee, not the ball, against the fence. He settled down and ripped several line drives.
"I got 14 points," he said. "I tried but couldn't hit one over the fence."
A volunteer asked him, "How's high school going? Any cute girls?"
"Well, some of them," Porter said.
As someone told him how handsome he looked with his new teeth braces, he waited with hands on hips for the basket toss. He tossed ball after ball into a can.
"Jess Abdul-Jabbar," a teacher said.
No praise could have been greater.
Porter turned to leave, not smiling but with his head held high. Softly, he repeated those magic words, "Jess Abdul-Jabbar."