Skyler Corliss loves to run. When she’s practicing at North Forsyth or competing in a race, she feels a unique sense of pride that other activities can’t evoke.
Daley Fitzpatrick doesn’t enjoy running quite as much as her best friend — she prefers softball and basketball — but when her coaches and family yell "kick it!" as she sprints across the track, she feels so proud.
Together, Skyler and Daley form an inspiring duo. They’ve been inseparable since the day they met long ago at Sawnee Elementary school, and as they’ve grown up their bond has only grown stronger.
Certainly, the two understand how lucky they are to have each other.
"If I didn’t meet Skyler, I wouldn’t have a friend like her," Daley said.
At young ages, Skyler and Daley became the first female track and field athletes in the Forsyth County Special Olympics program. Today, more than 40 local athletes participate in these events, and Forsyth touts one of the best programs in the state. This has allowed special needs kids and adults alike opportunities to channel their energy into positive and rewarding endeavors.
Last year, Skyler and Daley were nominated for the national Summer Games in New Jersey, and were both selected to represent Georgia along with Dejonna Colbert of DeKalb County.
Not often do athletes get to compete on a national stage. To do so alongside one’s best friend is about as good as it gets.
"It was so much fun," Daley said. "And it was even better to do it with my BFF."
Skyler and Daley both raced in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Corliss won the silver medal for the 100 and the bronze for the 200; Fitzpatrick won the silver for the 200 and the gold for the 400.
The hope was that they’d each bring home at least one medal. Suffice it to say, they exceeded expectations.
"My mom was happy," Skyler said of the medal ceremony. "She was about to start crying, my dad was about to start crying."
As they stood on the podium and were presented their medals, Skyler and Daley’s parents proudly watched from the stands.
"It’s so amazing," said Melissa Corliss, Skyler’s mother. "It’s not so much about the medals. It’s the friendships that they’ve made, how they worked so hard. As the Special Olympics oath goes, ‘If I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt.’"
Joining the parents was Sandra Johnson. Her husband, Chip, is Skyler and Daley’s track and field coach in Forsyth, but a female instructor was needed to accompany the athletes. So Sandra took over.
Through Chip, Sandra has gotten to know the girls well over the years, and they’ve become an extended family of sorts. This long-standing relationship, one that figures to continue long into the future, only made the girls’ success at the Games more memorable.
"It was absolutely wonderful to join them," said Sandra, who typically coaches other sports such as softball. "They had everything planned from the time we got there to the time we left to go home. Everyone was so welcoming. It was very overwhelming.
"You teared up, you cried, you laughed. We had the best time. I got as much out of this as they did—maybe more."
On a national scale, the support system for the Special Olympics is massive. Almost 4,000 athletes participated in this year’s Summer Games, and roughly 1,000 coaches and 10,000 volunteers worked together to make it all possible.
On a local scale, it’s required a lot of behind-the-scenes work to turn Forsyth’s program into one of the best in the state.
"The great thing to me about the Special Olympics is everyone leaves feeling like a winner," said Melissa. "Every athlete and every spectator in the stands feels like they have gained something from the experience."
"It’s about helping an individual do their best," added Linda Fitzpatrick, Daley’s mother. "We call them champions. Yes, they want to win, but what’s more important is the spirit of the event.
"It’s competitive, but at the end of the day they believe and feel proud about what they do. As parents, we accept that."
Winning medals was nice, but the Special Olympics are about much more than sports.
Skyler and Daley got up every morning at 6 a.m., and didn’t get to bed until 10 p.m. They got to see a minor league baseball game. They flew on a private jet. They enjoyed a dinner cruise and saw the Statue of Liberty.
Indeed, the Games are about a lot more than the games themselves—they’re about giving athletes the experience of a lifetime.
"The spirit and the love that’s in their hearts are so unconditional," Linda said. "When you’re in that environment, there’s no comparison."