Fallen maple leaves that crunched a few days ago instead squished underneath the soles of about 150 participants’ shoes as each made their way to the starting line.
The Gainesville Race for Inclusion, an inaugural event, happened on UF’s Flavet Field. Hosted by Special Olympics Florida, the fundraiser had almost $2,000 more than its original goal of $50,000 by the time the event started. The volunteers included UF’s Special Olympics College (SOC), athletes, student race ambassadors from the University Athletic Association (UAA), local businesses and community members. They came together to support this one part of a nine-month campaign that fights the stigma associated with intellectual disabilities.
Talking just a few feet away from a registration tent was Becky Richter, a 43-year-old Special Olympics athlete and athletic leader. From as young as eight, she has been part of the Special Olympics. As an athlete leader, she has been helping kids join the Inclusion Race.
The fun she has in these events led her to travel about an hour to walk the Gainesville route. Initially running track events, Richter said that as the years have gone by, Bocce and Bowling have become her two favorite events.
“I just keep on going,” she said.
Participating in Special Olympics is a way for her to be social, said her mother Elaine Richter.
“It is where she met all these great kids from the school,” she said.
The program that supported Richter, and other athletes, was the Unified Sports Program available to UF students through their Intramural Programs. It allows students to become Unified Partners with Special Olympic athletes. Before returning to in-person courses this Fall, these events took place on Zoom. The virtual format helped foster some of the relationships that were seen on the field before the race ever began.
The Race for Inclusion is an area event that lets athletes from Special Olympics’ Area 3 run or walk the 5k route that passes through UF’s Fraternity Row. Participants from seven different Floridian counties came to the event. On stage, UF’s Center for Independent Living emceed the fundraiser’s celebration. They recognized the top donors of the race and had Special Olympics Floridian triathlete, Chris Nikic, lead the crowd’s recital of the Special Olympics Athletes Oath.
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” the crowd chanted.
Samantha Meador, president of the SOC at UF, says that the club stands as a hub for UF students to get connected with Special Olympics programs. They raised $4,813 for the event and said that word of mouth and fundraisers help people socialize and learn more about the unified partnerships that can be made with the athletes.
“At times, there are more athletes than partners so we want to get the word out there,” she said.
Meador, from Miami, is a 20-year-old speech-language pathology junior. Her older sister, Sabrina, is an athlete and is the reason Meador is part of the Special Olympics community.
Organizers led participants to the starting line at 9:10 a.m.
The crowd gathered and last minute stretches, shuffles and chatters of excitement could be heard in the quiet morning. Before they took off, they huddled together for a few photos. Soon after, UF Athletic Director, Scott Stricklin, announced the start of the race.
“Go,” he shouted, and off they went.
Richter was not the only participant who planned to walk the route.
Denise Burton, 65, and her 7-year-old granddaughter, Rhyanna Burton, showed up at the event because of a flyer shared with students at Carol Parker Elementary.
In the summer, Burton met an athlete in Cracker Barrel and remembered her when Rhyanna brought home the flyer. They donated $25 toward equipment and walked in solidarity with the cause.
“I call it giving back to the community. Paying it forward,” Burton said.
By the finish line, seven student paramedics waited for participants to come back. Within 25 minutes, runners, cheered on by the paramedics and event organizers, came rushing through the entrance.
They were greeted with claps and eight ounce water bottles. Some ran toward the refreshment table sponsored by Starbucks while others reveled in their finish and slowed to a walk after passing the marker. One athlete raced the last stretch with his unified partner then turned around to run it again.
At 10 a.m., most of the participants returned.
Athletes like Richter and Nikic attended the Race for Inclusion, but still train for their Olympic events as the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games approach next June.
Thandie Brown is a contributing writer for The Alligator.
Thandie Brown is a journalism student at UF and a reporter on the Metro beat. This is her first semester at the Alligator, and when she is not writing, she is photographing. You may find her in the Plaza of Americas dressed in a jeans jacket decorated with her favorite things.