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Portraits of grit, glory and good vibes from the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games

Photography by Brian Smale

For a half-century, the Special Olympics have championed acceptance and inclusion for athletes of all abilities. But for anyone who attends the games – whether as a competitor, family member, coach, volunteer or even just as a spectator – the experience gives a powerful sense of how all of us are much more connected as a community than we recognize on a daily basis.

Held from July 1-6 in Seattle, the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games showcased more than 4,000 athletes from across the United States competing in 14 Olympic-type team and individual sports from powerlifting and gymnastics to bocce and stand-up paddle board.

Even with ESPN coverage, 10,000 volunteers and multiple venues in and around Seattle, the games are still the sum of the individual stories of the participants. Here are some of them.

Celeste Harris

Celeste Harris (Cheerleading, Arizona)

While this is Celeste Harris’s first Special Olympics, she has practiced cheerleading for almost a decade. For her, the highlight of the sport is waving the pompoms and bringing energy to the other teams. Harris loves to practice with her friend McKenzie and spend time with the other cheerleaders.

Arther Smith

Arther Smith (100 meter, Mississippi)

This gold medal winner and sprinting standout was serene about competition but brimming with excitement to be in Pacific Northwest. After his first time on a plane, he marveled at Seattle’s evergreen trees and cool June weather. “I feel like I could live here,” he said. “I definitely want to bring my daughter, Shelby, to visit someday.”

Nickolas King

Nickolas King (Flag football, Washington state)

Nose tackle Nickolas King “protects the middle of the field” on his defensively minded team. He was instrumental in a now-famous, last-minute goal-line stand at the Washington state tournament before the Special Olympics. Still riding on that momentum, King came to play tough defense but also to “meet other athletes, hear their stories and see all of these people come together from all over.”

David Strand

David Strand (Volleyball, Michigan)

Fresh off a victory against New York, an ecstatic David Strand announced, “Volleyball is the best sport in the world.” That means a lot considering he has also competed in hockey, basketball and golf. When not perfecting his spike, he can be found shaking hands with other teams and swapping commemorative Special Olympics pins.

Adele Brown

Adele Brown (Volleyball, Michigan)

“We’ve practiced hard all year to get here and come together as a team,” said Adele Brown. “But I’ve also improved as a player: worked on my grip and my lower hits.” She commended the coaches for helping her set goals and maintain focus, which has helped her grow on and off the court.

Andrea Hall

Andrea Hall (Volleyball, Washington state)

“I played a bit of volleyball when I was a teenager but I didn’t stick with it,” Andrea Hall said. “Then – years later – I tried volleyball with this team and made so many friends that it is now a huge part of my life.” Whether at practice or in competition, she likes the feeling of working together to accomplish something difficult as a group.

Nick Hollands

Nick Hollands (Volleyball, Washington state)

“We always have fun,” said Nick Hollands. “Winning is just a bonus.” An accomplished athlete in basketball, soccer, softball and bowling, he especially enjoys the camaraderie of volleyball. “People travel a long way to get to our practices every week. We have a great group of truly dedicated guys and gals.”

Brittnay Stewart

Brittnay Stewart (100 meter, mini-javelin, Alabama)

Brittnay Stewart dedicated her experience at the games to her family and her boyfriend, who supported her throughout training and competition. While both excited and nervous about her events, Brittnay’s main goal was to make new friends at the Special Olympics.

Thomas O’Neil

Thomas O’Neil (Shot put, Connecticut)

“Overall, the goal is what [Special Olympics Chairman Timothy] Shriver said, ‘to have fun and a good time for everyone,’” explained O’Neil, who competed in soccer in the last Special Olympics. “I hope someday to help the Special Olympics community and offer support to other athletes like people have done for me.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy (100 meter and 200 meter, Connecticut)

A man of few words and blazing speed, Murphy liked the competition of the Special Olympics, but said that his favorite part was spending time with his teammates and meeting athletes from other parts of the country. When asked what he thought about traveling all the way across the country to race, he simply flashed one of his gold medal smiles.

Jasper McKnight

Jasper McKnight (Shot put, 200 meter, Mississippi)

Jasper McKnight is the team comedian. While he says with a smile that his goal is not just to get the gold but “shut down all the haters,” he admits that his legendary big talking is a way to clear his mind and have some fun while staying focused.

Jimmie Braun

Jimmie Braun (100 meter, Alabama)

For Jimmie Braun, the Special Olympics is part of the bigger picture of maintaining an active lifestyle. He said, “If you find an activity that makes you want to get up, get out of your house and do something … you should go do it. For me, that’s always been running.”

Sherrell Caldwell

Sherrell Caldwell (100 meter, mini-javelin, Alabama)

Sherrell Caldwell shared her excitement about the games through a few written notes in her impeccable handwriting. She wanted to let everyone know that it is an honor to participate in the Special Olympics and to be a part of the tight-knit Alabama Track & Field team.

Matthew Maillelle

Matthew Maillelle (Basketball, Alaska)

“This is my 23rd year involved with the Special Olympics,” noted Team Alaska’s captain and point guard. Matthew Maillelle has played basketball since elementary school and, for him, “it never gets old.” As captain he works closely with the other team members. “I’ve been having fun with these guys, both playing and just hanging out.”

Denise Andreadis

Denise Andreadis (Volleyball, Alabama)

“We’re all here to have fun,” said Andreadis, “but we’re gonna win first.” A consistent inspiration to her other teammates, she exudes optimism, thrives on the teamwork of volleyball and relishes the opportunity to spend as much time as possible with her friends.

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