A special day for some special athletes

Vanessa Hicks, left, holds the Special Olympics torch with Bingham County Detention Deputy Jordyn Nebeker during the Saturday morning opening ceremony at Bonneville High School’s Thunder Stadium. The Bingham County Sheriff’s Office coordinated the Torch Run. Local law enforcement officers were accompanied by athletes in the run.

As Special Olympian Craig Johnson patiently waited on the bench, his father massaged his shoulders and helped stretch his throwing arm.

“He’s really improved through a lot of hard work, practice and dedication,” Howard Johnson said.

The 33-year-old Ririe athlete was preparing for his first event of the day — the shot-put competition. He also would run in the 4-by-100 meter relay and the 100 meter dash as a member of the Rigby Wranglers.

“It’s fun,” Craig Johnson said. “I feel good.”

Johnson was among 286 athletes — representing 14 eastern Idaho teams — who competed Saturday in the Special Olympics Eastern Idaho Regional Games in Idaho Falls.

But for the Johnson family, the importance of the day would not be measured in distances thrown, sprint times or first-place finishes.

“This is an opportunity to be part of something special — something extremely beneficial and important to all the athletes out here today,” Howard Johnson said. “And the miracle of it all is the volunteers. This is all volunteer. That really tells me something about these people. They put in all these hours because they really care and love these athletes.”

First-time volunteer Susan Bergquist was part of the crew that checked in the runners. Helping out at a Special Olympics was something Bergquist had thought about for a long time. So, when the call for volunteers went out, Bergquist was quick to respond.

“I used to work in special education and this was on my bucket list. It’s something I always wanted to be part of,” she said.

That this was no ordinary day was apparent right from the start. The teams of athletes paraded around Bonneville High School’s Thunder Stadium before taking their places on the infield — flanking the Special Olympics ceremonial cauldron.

Two of their own led the athletes in the Pledge of Allegiance and then, the Special Olympics Oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Minutes later, the Law Enforcement Torch Run — a group of runners that included officers from various police agencies, as well as Special Olympians — made its way into Thunder Stadium.

Idaho Falls runner Vanessa Hicks, a qualifier for the national championships, and Bingham County Detention Deputy Jordyn Nebeker, held the Special Olympics torch high over their heads before igniting the cauldron.

“This was an experience,” Hicks said. “I’ve never done this before. This was a really good experience.”

After the ceremony, the focus of the athletes turned toward their individual events.

Craig Johnson and his family headed for the pit. As skilled a shot-putter as Johnson is, his father said it’s bowling where his son really shines.

“He loves bowling,” Johnson said.

After the dust settled, Craig Johnson’s heave of about 20 feet — 6 meters, 30 centimeters — was good for third place.

Soon it would be time for the running events to begin.

As first-time volunteer Susan Bergquist patiently waited at the race check-in table, a smile crept across her face.

“It fills my heart to see these kids out here competing,” she said.