At Special Olympics, the podium is the pinnacle

BY ANDREA COHEN Modified: May 15, 2009 at 12:53 pm •  Published: May 15, 2009
STILLWATER — With his race over and a medal already around his neck, Special Olympian Sam Sweeten and his mom, Jennifer, made their way to the medal stand to cheer for Sam’s swimming teammates.

But when Sam saw his friend up on the medal stand, he couldn’t resist. The 12-year-old made a run for the podium and grabbed onto his friend on the stand, basking in the cheers and smiling for the cameras a second time.

"He likes to be in the spotlight,” Jennifer said. "He only had one race, but he made it count.”

It’s easy to see why Sam was so drawn to that podium, a simple little structure painted blue, red and yellow and situated about 15 feet from the pool at the Stillwater YMCA, where Thursday’s Special Olympics swimming events were held. The action takes place in the pool, but for many Special Olympians, the most memorable moments happen on the medal stands, where family, friends, coaches and teammates all gather to congratulate the athletes.

"It’s a great job,” said volunteer Tonya Vallerand, who organized the athletes on the podium and handed out medals. "It’s so awesome because the kids are just so excited to see their medal and be done.”

The medal ceremonies are quick at swimming — there are several dozen races, and the medals are presented as they progress. The swimmers are shivering and dripping wet as they stand on the podium, but that doesn’t make them any less ecstatic.