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SPORTS NOTEBOOK / DICK WAGNER : Time of Celebration at Special Olympics

May 02, 1991|DICK WAGNER

Among the 800 athletes at Saturday's Special Olympics track and field meet at the Millikan High School stadium in Long Beach was Yusef Graham, a tall, loose-limbed 14-year-old in gray sweat pants and a white T-shirt that identified him as a member of the Norwalk team.

Yusef, an autistic student in a special program at Norwalk High School, smiled a lot but said little more than "yes."

He had finished fourth in the 100-meter run and was being escorted off the field by his coach, Rick Osburn.

"He's a friend," Osburn said as Yusef clung to his back. "He's a guy who likes to hang onto you."

Osburn, a lean, amiable young man who is a sophomore on the Rio Hondo College basketball team, had been working for the city of Norwalk as a sports official when he was asked to be a Special Olympics coach.

"I fell in love with it," he said.

When Yusef rejoined his teammates in the bleachers, he curled up with a water bottle and waited to be called for the softball throw.

Osburn went back down on the field, disappearing among 400 other volunteers. More running and jumping events were held, and after each it was hard to get the ecstatic athletes up on the awards platform, so intent were they on slapping hands with as many people as they could.

"The athletes have to train for eight weeks before they compete," said Betty Nordholm, the diminutive director of the Long Beach Area of the California chapter of Special Olympics International that was host to the 14-team meet.

Nordholm, whose daughter, Carol Nordholm, 37, was in the swimming competition, added: "Our primary concern is our year-round sports-training program for children and adults who are mentally retarded."

After an hour's wait, Yusef was on the field, warming up by playing catch with his mother, Mercedes Tudy.

"Are you ready for the softball throw?" Osburn asked.

"Yes," answered Yusef, whose eyes were hidden by his red-and-white cap.

As the afternoon sun got hotter, Yusef yawned. Finally it became his turn to shine.

The young right-hander stepped up and threw the ball 30 feet, far enough to earn a "Very good, kiddo" from his mother.

Yusef and Osburn exchanged high-fives and then the smiling youngster, without a word, sat on the grass and let all the praise wash over him.

He had not finished first but he had fulfilled the Special Olympics oath that was spelled out on the front of his shirt:

"Let me win; but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

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