LEWISTON – She has conquered greater challenges in her nine years, but Mikayla Brown’s wide, bright eyes could see only one immediate conundrum: How to navigate the double-sided podium and claim her medal?
“You get to go all the way to the top step,” a volunteering Auburn police officer gently encouraged, while his colleague waited to adorn the Farmington girl’s neck.
Mikayla looked down at her glistening prize, slightly larger in circumference than a silver dollar. She lifted her head to see her mom, Cheryl, and a cheering throng of friends and neighbors. And she smiled.
It was contagious.
More than 300 athletes from 50 Maine schools and community support programs took the plunge Friday afternoon in the Special Olympics state swim meet at Bates College.
Competitors ranged in age from 8 to 58. Events ran almost continuously from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and included everything from 10-yard assisted freestyle races to the 100-meter backstroke.
In addition to Brown’s SAD 9 Sharks, other area squads included Life Center of Auburn, John F. Murphy Homes, Kennebec Valley Penguins and Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon and Winthrop schools. Lewiston police also took a turn presenting awards.
Special Olympics provides a full spectrum of year-round sports competition for children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Nobody goes away from a pool, bowling alley or mountain empty-handed. Seven swimmers could fit on Friday’s podium, and there were more medals and ribbons making the rounds at Tarbell Pool than you’d find at any county fair.
There were winners, though, and just for the record, the Sharks swam out of town with a hefty haul.
Within an hour of Mikayla Brown’s victory, 8-year-old Mikayla Tracy and 9-year-old Quin Fernandez earned the same journey to the highest point of the two-foot pedestal while composer John Williams’ familiar Olympic theme music serenaded them.
“They love it. Sometimes it’s difficult because this is such a different environment than practice, with all the noise and all the people,” said Cathy Pingree, a Sharks coach for nine years and a special education teacher at Mount Blue High School.
Something about the spotlight brought out a little extra bite in the Sharks.
“Maybe it’s the competition, I don’t know, but they’re all swimming better than they ever have,” Pingree said. “Everyone is doing an awesome job. You practice and practice, but you never know what’s going to happen. Today they’re really turning it up.”
There has been a swimming program for Special Olympians in Franklin County since the fitness center at the University of Maine at Farmington was christened in the early 1990s.
Pete Manter began volunteering shortly after. While ever-growing prize money and ever-changing personalities have soured some people on professional sports in that span, Manter has watched the heart of Special Olympics remain intact for 11 years.
Well, some of the faces have changed.
“A lot of these kids are 8 and 9 years old,” Manter said. “They weren’t even born when I started.”
While she’s relatively new to the Sharks, Mikayla Brown has been splashing around for more than half her life.
“I took her to swimming lessons at the university,” Cheryl Brown said. “This is her second year (at the Special Olympics). It’s great. It’s something for her to look forward to all year, and it’s something the whole community can support.”
And they do. Jane Wallace of Mallett School, another Sharks’ coach, said that families and other fans were allowed to ride the team bus.
Wallace was grateful for the extra hands on deck. She enjoyed few breaks during the competition, wandering from end-to-end with clipboard and highlighted entry sheet in hand.
“Today is chaotic,” Wallace said with a smile, “but it is rewarding. They’re doing a great job.”