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Hundreds of athletes compete in Special Olympics Sectional Spring Games

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EBENSBURG, Pa. (WJAC) -- Hundreds of athletes and volunteers came together in Cambria County for the annual Special Olympics PA Central Sectional Spring Games.

The Special Olympics has been around for nearly 50 years, and here in Pennsylvania, just two years shy of that.

On Sunday, about 350 athletes had the chance to show off their skills.

"It's an opportunity to compete against their peers with people that they are not threatened by or intimidated by. They become friends,” said Tom Mereen. “They look forward to the statewide competitions and national competitions."

Mereen's daughter Christa is one of many athletes who competed on the track at Central Cambria High School.

"We were told that she may never walk or talk or be able to interact normally," Mereen said.

Christa proved the doctors wrong, even in the cold weather.

"I love doing track and field and being out in the cold. I'm used to it," Christa Mereen said.

Christa is 30 years old and she's been participating in the Special Olympics for 15 years.

"I make a lot of friends, and seeing friends I knew for a long time from different counties," Christa said.

Despite the cold, Christa set a personal best time during the 800-meter walk.

"A few of us were talking and complaining a little bit about how cold it was,” said Eric Cushing, vice president of Special Olympics Pennsylvania. “The Special Olympic athletes, no complaints from them. They are loving life. They are loving this event."

This summer, Christa will be one of 50 athletes traveling to Seattle to compete in the national games as part of Team PA.

"They are the very best competitors, athletes, people, you will ever meet, and Special Olympics is an awesome forum to bring that out of our athletes,” Cushing said.

"They're as passionate about competition as any athlete anywhere,” Mereen said. “They really want to compete, and they push themselves to levels that they wouldn't get to otherwise."

The athletes feel the joy of competing and students from Saint Francis University also benefit through volunteering. It’s a partnership that's lasted more than 20 years.

"We probably won't even be done with today's event and they'll want to know when it's going to happen again next year,” said Lisa Georgiana, director of the Center for Service & Learning. "I think we had more than 200 student volunteers from Saint Francis University, in addition to the students from Central Cambria High School who came out on this nice, warm day to cheer everybody on."

The organization brings out joy and passion and, for many families, it changes lives.

The competition Sunday leads into the summer games, the largest competition of the year, which will take place in State College from May 31 to June 2.

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