There were many ways for the athletes in Saturday’s Victory Challenge for the physically challenged to compete in track and field, but they all finished with determination.
Competitors spent the day in events such as swimming, archery, shot put, long jumps and wheelchair and foot races at the Nassau County Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale. There, they displayed not only physical prowess, but also grit, confidence and friendship.
“Here, it shows me how I can be the same as other people,” said Loren Karabatzoglou, 18, of Islip, a Little People of America team member. Waving to her team, Karabatzoglou said: “Half are my best friends I love like sisters.”
She and teammate Madison Ehler, 19, a freshman at Orange County Community College, agreed that seeing such a range of disabilities at the two-day event taught respect and tolerance.
“It opened me up to differences; I don’t notice it,” said Ehler, as Karabatzoglou, who also plays high school softball, chimed in: “I don’t judge.”
Many participants can feel isolated if their disabilities are unique in their communities, parents said.
Erin Pinto, 40, of Levittown, said that for her 8-year-old son Owen, who is on the autism spectrum, “It’s an opportunity to be amongst his peers and to cheer all the other kids.”
Not all the cheering can be heard. For those who are deaf, volunteers who encourage the athletes signal applause by raising their hands and swiveling their wrists.
The event attracted athletes aged 5 to 21. For Jayden Iglesias, 9, of Woodside, “the best part is the swimming.”
“The biggest thing is that it builds their self-esteem. They try new things, and learn by patterning,” said Nancy Lincoln, games coordinator at PS 229 in Woodside. “If one doesn’t do so well, the others encourage them to keep trying.”
Ed Black, 72, of Malverne, said the games have helped his nephew become more social, and have helped Black gain a new perspective.
“You realize how little your problems are,” he said.
Scaling physical barriers, like the stairs on the “slalom” course, helps competitors learn to surmount other difficulties in life, said Dwight Herring, 27, of Westchester, who guided his 12-year-old brother Gerald through the course.
Returning Gerald to his wheelchair in triumph, Herring said: “Coming out here and having the opportunities to face these obstacles is so important.”