Long Island athletes compete at Special Olympics in Commack

About 650 local athletes competed in the Special Olympics' Long Island Spring Games at Commack High School on May 4, 2014. It is the Special Olympics' largest track and field event on LI and participants have the opportunity to advance to the statewide Summer Games. (Credit: Steve Pfost)

Nine-year-old Drulisa Jackson gripped an adapted javelin

in her tiny hand, gauging her aim and the wind, as her coach and family offered last-minute advice like "remember -- step and throw."

"I know what I have to do," Drulisa, of East Northport, shouted back. With that, she hurled the TurboJav through the air.It was this throw, paired with a healthy dose of confidence, that landed Jackson a gold medal at the 43rd Special Olympics Spring Games held at Commack High School.

Jackson was among 625 athletes from across Long Island, ranging from ages 8 to 65, to compete at the largest regional event leading up to the June statewide Special Olympic Games in Buffalo, said Diane Colonna, Long Island regional director of Special Olympics New York.

"Special Olympics provides people with intellectual disabilities opportunity to be a part of sport," Colonna said. "It starts with sports, but because of what they get out of sport -- the confidence, socialization skills, friendship -- it really just opens up opportunities."

Drulisa's mother Katie Jackson, 41, said her daughter has gained more confidence in training with other children on her team, which represents the James E. Allen Elementary School, a Western Suffolk BOCES program in Dix Hills.

"She loves to do it," Jackson said. "And she likes to be the center of attention, so this is probably the best place to be."

Other events Sunday included the 50- to 1,500-meter dashes, shot put, standing and running long jump and tennis.

Athletes trained about eight weeks before the games and were led by coaches, Colonna said. All events follow NCAA guidelines and athletes are divided in groups by their ability, age and gender, she said.

The competition -- complete with an opening ceremony led by Commack High School's marching band and a simulated lighting of the torch set to the theme from "Rocky," "Gonna Fly Now" -- brought out Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) and various school and town officials.

Bellone addressed the athletes, saying, "You are an inspiration to each and every one of us."

The daylong event included hamburgers, hot dogs and DJ music that got volunteers and athletes dancing.

Brendan Lanese, 16, of Kings Park, said he took part in the games because "It looked like fun and I thought, 'give it a try,' I'm a good runner after all."

One perk, he said, was to "see people rooting for me."Rita Drasdo, 50, and Claudia Muller, 58, both of Northport, said they became friends as their sons -- Nicholas Drasdo and William Muller, both 21 -- competed in spring games over the past 13 years. Both athletes won gold medals in the 100-meter dash for the Commack High School team.

When asked whether he had any strategy, Drasdo said, "I just kept going."

Added Muller: "We felt good. It's good exercise."

For Rita Drasdo, the experience has been "meaningful," she said, adding, "It makes you feel really good to see these kids feel so happy."Colonna said the event shows a clear message to spectators: "Special Olympics athletes are capable of anything they put their mind to and to not focus on their disability, but focus on their ability."

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