Lesa Barnett has seen a lot of changes to the local Special Olympics Spring Games.
“It used to be Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin counties all together,” said Barnett, a special education teacher at Matt Elementary. “There would only be 50 or 60 athletes for all three counties.”
That definitely wasn’t the case during the 2012 Spring Games, held Friday at Forsyth Central High School.
More than 300 athletes — all from Forsyth’s public elementary, middle and high schools — participated in competitive events such as races, softball throws, soccer ball kicks and the long jump.
“It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown over the years,” Barnett said.
The day began with an opening ceremony, featuring a parade of all the athletes and the more than 400 “buddies,” or regular education high school students, paired with the athletes for the competition.
Forsyth Superintendent Buster Evans welcomed them and their supporters, who filled the home stands at Central’s stadium.
“This is a day of smiles, this is a day of victories,” he said.
Smiles in particular were abundant.
“It makes me so happy,” said Ayala Nogueira, a buddy from Central who was paired with Matt Elementary student Megan Sheridan. “[The athletes] are all so sweet. It’s great seeing everybody so happy.”
The athletes competed in two different groups. While the first was on the football field, the second was inside Central’s gym, taking part in fun activities such as dancing, carnival games and face painting.
Dianne Hansard of the Cumming Civitan Club said a number of the group’s members help out every year, providing the gym activities.
“It’s such a little thing we do, but they all have so much fun with it,” she said. “You don’t see any of them who are unhappy.”
Lindsey Sherer, a fourth-grade athlete from Chattahoochee Elementary, said she was “enjoying her day off.”
“I loved having people cheering for me,” she said, adding that her buddy, Rachel Low from North Forsyth High, was her “best friend.”
Julian Gonzolas, who said he was an “extra buddy,” spent the day playing basketball with the athletes in the gym.
“I do this every year,” he said. “After you do it, you realize how much you have. You can be feeling bad about your life and you come here and everything is so much better.”
Sherer’s teacher, Ashley Millard, said she and her students look forward to the games.
“When we leave [Chattahoochee] to come here, the whole school does a big send-off for us,” she said. “It’s very emotional. Everybody lines the hallways and cheers. Every year, it brings tears to our eyes.”
Barnett said Matt holds a similar send-off, jump-starting what for many of the athletes may be one of the best days of the year.
“So many of these students can’t participate in typical sports,” she said. “So today is their day to shine and feel like kings and queens of the world.”