Under sunny skies, Saraswathi Tiruchinapally, a senior at Mountain View High School, joined over 200 other special education students at Gunn High School's athletic field on Friday, May 19, to test her sports skills in the Palo Alto Unified School District Special Olympics track and field event.
This was her second year participating, and Tiruchinapally had just successfully completed a mile run, for which she "felt grateful," she said.
With a big grin, Tiruchinapally described how her mom had come to cheer for her while she ran.
"It makes me feel joy," she said.
The event, sponsored by the school district in partnership with Special Olympics Northern California and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto, brought together over 200 special education students and 175 staff members from 15 schools across Palo Alto, Mountain View, Atherton and Menlo Park.
"Look at the smiles," event co-organizer Roxanne Koopman, an adapted physical education teacher, said. "They're all inspired to do their best."
The athletes opened the event by walking onto the field as the Gunn High School marching band played their fight song. There were speeches from various school district officials, but the highlight was Ilona Haukioja, a student at Walter Hays, leading everyone in the Special Olympics' athletes' oath: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
This was the eighth year of the district's Special Olympics event. When Angel Sheridan joined the district as an adapted physical education teacher, she knew she wanted to start a Special Olympics program. In a previous job, she had loved how the program helped students.
Since she started the Palo Alto Unified Special Olympics program, she has seen how it's boosted confidence and how students improve year after year. For some, it is the first time that they're part of a team or wearing the school's sports uniform.
"You can see how psyched" the students are, she said.
Yonatan Naven, a junior at Gunn High School, has participated for four years. He ran the mile in a little over 9 minutes on Friday, he said, but he prefers sprinting in the 100 meter race.
One of Sheridan's students is Sang Joon Lee. Sheridan has known Lee, now a senior at Gunn High School, since he was in second grade and has watched him grow and take on new challenges.
As Lee got ready to run in the 1-mile race Friday, the crowd was abuzz about whether he would be able to beat his personal record.
When he broke his record with an 8 minute and 2 second mile, the crowd erupted.
"(The) cheering helps," he said modestly.
That seemed to be a shared sentiment among many of the athletes, who appreciated both the chance to shine and the support they felt from others.
Tiruchinapally described the track and field event as a "very fun experience."
"I like when they cheer me on and when I deserve a medal," she said.
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