Thousands of athletes, coaches, family members and fans descend on Newberg for the third year of competition

Two years ago, the Special Olympics Summer State Games made its debut in Newberg, albeit a soggy one that saw poor weather cancel a few events. by: GARY ALLEN -  Tim Siler, of Newberg, a member of the Yamhill County team, lights the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony Saturday evening.

The weather cooperated last year, but the event had to work around renovation of the Newberg High School football field and track, giving it an unfinished feel.

But with construction complete and nothing but sunny skies, the 2013 Summer State Games finally hit its stride over the weekend in Newberg, fulfilling the vision Special Olympics Oregon had when it revived the event with the help of Ken and Joan Austin in 2011.

“Newberg probably wasn’t on a lot of radars,” said KOIN TV’s Chad Carter, who served as emcee for the games ceremony on Saturday night. “Now, three years later, the facilities are top notch and people have come the previous two years and seen what an excellent atmosphere it’s become. I think we were slowly building into what we saw (Saturday night) and, hopefully, even better down the road.”

The games ceremony featured a level of energy, enthusiasm and support not yet seen since Special Olympics came to Newberg.

The stands were a little over half full, which was a small improvement over last year, but the cheering was especially raucous and loud, helped in part by plastic clapping toys that were passed out to the crowd and employed constantly.

“I think the difference was that everyone was a lot more engaged and willing to cheer,” said David Warner, director of marketing and communications for Special Olympics Oregon. “It just seemed louder this year.”by: GARY ALLEN - Volunteers Evan Liu and Leah Rybelt test an athlete's flexibility at the Oregon Team Wellness - Healthy Athletes center in the gymnasium at Newberg High School.

Event organizers were especially pleased to hear the crowd give out big cheers for every county’s contingent of athletes as they were announced and took their place in front of the stage, not just host Yamhill or the bigger teams from Washington and Multnomah.

Ken Austin said he was impressed with the turnout from the community for the games ceremony, telling the crowd that his wife Joan, who died in June, would have been extremely proud of that, but wants to see the stands completely full next year.

“You wouldn’t want a Super Bowl with nobody in the stands and this is their Super Bowl,” he said afterward.

Austin was especially moved, though, by a heartwarming rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sang by the athletes and gathered crowd.

“But more than anything else, when I heard you sing the latter part of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was meant for her,” Austin told the crowd. “That’s the most wonderful audience participation I have ever seen from any group and to have it from this group means so much to us, our town, everything.”

In addition to the sharp look of the new facilities, because athletes, coaches, fans and volunteers were able to move freely around the NHS complex, the games had a much more cohesive and unified atmosphere.

by: GARY ALLEN - Amanda Mendenhall of the Douglas County team competes in the shotput Saturday morning at Loran Douglas Field. That feeling was enhanced how smoothly things ran logistically.

“We had such a good show rate for volunteers – hardly anyone canceled,” director of volunteers LouAnne Tabada said. “They all just did such a great job. Each year you get more and more people returning that kind of know what they’re doing, so that all helps with the flow, too.”

The inaugural Mayor’s Bocce Cup made a successful debut Friday night as members from the Yamhill County team both put on a demonstration for participants and refereed matches.

Because organizers were only able to draw a handful of mayors for the event, which was put together on the fly in the last month or so, teams from George Fox University, the Law Enforcement Torch Run, the Newberg Downtown Coalition and the Yamhill County Special Olympics bocce program rounded out the field.

by: GARY ALLEN - Jeff Lowry of the Washington County team earns a medal in the 100-meter dash.In the end the unified-partner team of Brett Melton and Bobby Lee defeated Oregon State University baseball coach and Newberg native Pat Casey and Newberg Assistant City Manager Lee Elliott to claim the title, although it has not yet been decided where the traveling trophy will be housed for the next year.

In addition to the athletic competitions themselves, athletes enjoyed an expanded offering of food and entertainment at Olympic Town this year and once again were given access to health care as part of the Healthy Athletes program.

Opening Eyes, the eye-care portion of Healthy Athletes, proved to be a popular destination, as about 150 people received eye exams and access to free prescription lenses, frames or sports goggles as needed.

Dr. J.P. Lowery and Dr. Graham Erickson of the Pacific University School of Optometry have been involved in the program since it was started in the 1990s and with vision being such an integral part of one’s life, find the volunteer work to be quite gratifying.

“We had one athlete who did a little dance,” Lowery said. “She got her trial frames on and she was just so overcome with emotion, she couldn’t hold it in.”

This year’s games featured 1,587 athletes and 524 coaches for a total of 2,111 participants, numbers that were up slightly from a year ago.

It is still unclear what will happen after Special Olympics Oregon and Newberg’s current agreement expires after next year’s event, but based on this year’s event, there is strong support for the Summer State Games remaining where they are.

“We love the community support and outreach and hope to be there forever if we can,” Warner said. “The facilities are great, the partnerships are great and we want to keep it that way and keep coming down to Newberg every summer.”

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