An athlete clears the hurdle during the Special Olympics on March 3.

On a bright and chilly Saturday morning, a group of runners lined up, waiting for the signal to start. Some squirmed or fidgeted with excitement. More athletes – friends, classmates, friendly competitors – waited nearby for their turn.

They were ready. They’d practiced. For months, they’d worked hard. And now, with family and friends to cheer them on, they were ready to give it their all.

A volunteer summed it up perfectly: this was their day.

When the signal came, they were off. Powering down the track, every face alight with the joy of the moment.

Some waved at the crowd as they ran by, and the cheers grew louder; friends and family urging the athletes on by name.

At the finish line, high-fives and hugs.

Forgotten, for the moment, were life’s challenges. That some of them might not be able to tie their shoes; many have difficulty with a lot of the little things most of us take for granted, didn’t matter.

This was their day.

For this one day, for these few hours, the crowd cheered for them.

And they put their hearts into it.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), recent estimates in the United States show that about one in six, or about 15 percent, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disabilities.

Which means 85 percent of us will never know what it’s like to have difficulty with the simplest things, like eating breakfast or brushing our hair. Eighty-five out of a hundred of us will never experience how it feels to sometimes have trouble making sense of the world, and what’s going on around us.

And the same eighty-five of us will never feel the pain of being bullied for our challenges, despite the fact that we are among the most vulnerable.

Yet, we may also never know the excitement and thrill – and pride – that can only come from mastering a difficult concept or task after what seems like endless work and struggle.

The CDC defines developmental disabilities as “a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.”

But none of that mattered on that beautiful Saturday morning.

From the Special Olympics website: “Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities: with more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries -- and over a million volunteers.”

Also from the website: “Special Olympics is a global movement of people creating a new world of inclusion and community, where every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability. We are helping to make the world a better, healthier and more joyful place -- one athlete, one volunteer, one family member at a time.”

The athletes were excited to be there; determined to do their best, and happy to get a time to use as their entry time for the Stanislaus County Special Olympics.

Later, when asked what their favorite part of the day had been, almost all said, “running.” No doubt they meant the challenge of putting their bodies to the test; the sheer joy of moving through the air as fast as they could go.

But there was something more; something not as easily put into words: For a few brief hours, there was freedom. Freedom from the difficulties of life borne by those who came into the world differently abled; freedom from the constraints of being defined by challenges; freedom from being treated differently.

And something even more precious: For these few hours, the crowd cheered for them. Family, friends and strangers alike. Each athlete was in the spotlight.

The crowd was loud; the love and support almost palpable.

For this one day, for these few hours, these athletes truly felt the joy of running.

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