This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

It looked like any other athletic event.

Crowds gathered in the stands at West Caldwell High School. Athletes milled around below, clustered in groups based on the color of their t-shirts. Cheers and music and people shouting across the stands mixed into a comfortable, friendly racket.

There was just one difference: Everyone was crying.

“I didn’t stop crying all day,” said Stacy Effler, who stood on the sidelines of the Caldwell County Special Olympics on Friday.

Effler is a staff member at the Smoky Mountain Center, an organization that offers support to people with developmental disabilities. She was there to offer support and information to families at the event.

But tears were common among everyone at the spring games – parents, kids and teachers alike.

Since 1968, the Special Olympics have offered a chance to get involved with sports – and build acceptance – for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

On Friday, that took the form of everything from a 200-meter race to a softball throw.

Elementary, middle and high schools across the county took part, along with CCC&TI and a contingent of homeschooled athletes.

As the athletes started their opening procession, carrying hand-painted banners with their schools’ names and theirs, more tears started sliding down cheeks.

And when the Cobra cheerleaders – part of the compensatory education program at CCC&TI – started their routine, most of the last few holdouts lost it.

Spirits were high throughout the day. Everyone involved was quick to offer their congratulations to the athletes on the field.

Athletes on the field were cheered on by clusters of spectators, by their parents and teachers and friends. Some were followed step-for-step throughout the games by their “buddies” in the Project Unify program.

The program partners special-needs kids with a buddy from their school. Those student volunteers do everything from running awareness campaigns to holding pep rallies. On Friday, they were out on the field with their buddies.

Their goal is to make special-needs children feel accepted, said Kim Story, who heads up the program at Granite Falls Middle.

“They’re defenders,” Story said. “They defend these kids like they’re their brothers and sisters.”

For volunteers – from Project Unify and elsewhere – this was a banner day.

But it meant even more for the athletes and their families.

“It means he gets to participate,” said Amy Morrison, whose son Dameon competed for the first time this year.

Story’s son Hunter was an athlete this year, too, giving the long jump, running long jump and softball throw a try.

“When we found out he was autistic, that was one of the things that hurt the most,” Story said. “Because you think, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a baseball player. We’re going to grow up watching him play baseball.’ Special Olympics gave us that.”

Early on, the athletes recited the Special Olympics pledge: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

For some of the students who circled the West Caldwell track in the opening ceremonies, it was a long trek.

Many made the trip in wheelchairs or walkers. You could see them slow down a bit at the end.

But they made it, all with grins stretching across their faces.

They were brave.