"When we first started practicing in October, they did not have any effective volleyball skills at all," said St. Elizabeth's coach Pat Dutko. "I have one athlete, Susan [Sheeks], and she's the only one that had played volleyball before.
"They had no concept of bumping, passing, serving, nothing. So it's taken a long time. However, the skills they have now, I am real proud of because they had to work real hard to get those."
Now, they are going to be rewarded.
The St. Elizabeth's team, made up of nine Baltimore athletes, and 33 other Maryland Special Olympians, are headed to Minneapolis to compete in the eighth International Special Olympics Summer Games for mentally retarded competitors.
"This is like a dream come true," said Sheeks. "I wanted to go last year, but that was all just a dream. It came true this year, and we're going to do Maryland a good thing."
Athletes from nearly 90 countries will converge in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the games, which run today through July 27.
In the Special Olympics, the emphasis is more on having fun and improving skills than on winning. Teams are matched in divisions based on skill level and the success of their programs, though there are individuals who do not have much background in a particular sport. Such is the case of Amy Fortman, 17, who is one of four local aquatics athletes going to Minneapolis.
Fortman has been swimming for a year, but she has met the challenge of a new sport in the past. According to her mother, Mary, Fortman never had skied before going to the International Special Olympic Winter Games in Lake Tahoe in 1989. But her daughter won four medals in cross country skiing.
"We were surprised," said Mary Fortman. "She has only been swimming for a year, but she is a good swimmer. I don't have to worry about her."
Amy Fortman isn't worried either, because "I've been training real hard."
The same can be said of the St. Elizabeth's team, whose players range in age from 14-year-old Latasha Turnpin to 20-year-olds Faith Allen and Karen Baines. The team held its last practice Tuesday in the school's gymnasium, and, though there were no spikes and no long volleys, the players were enthusiastic.
The running part of the sport, though, is something Cathy Sinclair, 18, could do without.
"I like volleyball," she said, "but it's hard because they make us run for the ball every single time."
Said Dutko: "The eye perception is very difficult. When that ball is coming over the net, following it is very hard for them, and to actually use basic volleyball skills, you have to be able to have that perception."
In the Maryland Special Olympics, the team played a boys team of equal skill and had no choice but to mature quickly.
"They had one guy who was 21 years old, and he was spiking balls down their throats at tremendous speeds," said Dutko. "At first, they were intimidated, but then I said: 'Hey, don't be afraid. Just meet the ball. And, finally, they got the hang of it and started coming back. They beat us, but we made a good showing against them."
When the team plays in Minneapolis, it will be the first time it has played against an all-girls team since it began practicing for the games.
"I'm excited, and they're excited," said Dutko. "I doubt if any of them are going to sleep Thursday night at the hotel [before leaving for Minneapolis], because they are so wired. I just can't wait to get out there to let them start doing their thing."
The goal will be to win a medal, but if it does not happen, many of the players have said they still will have fun.
"To me, volleyball is just a game, and I'm here to enjoy it," said Sheeks. "We play hard, and we enjoy it. We don't think of it as if you lose, you're no good. That's no spirit."
Said Sister Catherine Morrissey, the team's assistant coach: "We've worked hard all year in helping them build positive attitudes and self-esteem. We've been teaching them that, when they do their best, even though they don't win, it's the effort and the teamwork that counts.
"I think that's the difference between Special Olympics and regular Olympics, to win, to try, but it we don't win, we enjoy it. That's the whole purpose of these games."
Maryland athletes going to Minneapolis
Athlete .. Age .. Sport
Paul Day 17 Aquatics
Steven Jackson 12 Bowling
Martin Valaske 21 Aquatics
Faith Allen 20 Volleyball
Karen Baines 20 Volleyball
Dana Carver 17 Volleyball
Regina Determan 17 Volleyball
Amy Fortman 17 Aquatics
Quan Harris 16 Volleyball
Mary Moore 21 Volleyball
Susan Sheeks 17 Volleyball
Cathy Sinclair 18 Volleyball
Latasha Turnpin 14 Volleyball
Ralph Gemmill 17 Athletics
Scott Glowacki 28 Tennis
Michael Marchanti 16 Athletics
Alex McGill 15 Athletics
Mary Beth Stone 18 Equestrian
Bruce Watt 16 Equestrian
William Atkins 17 Athletics
David Keys 30 Athletics
Joel Reeves 21 Bowling
Shelley Bowling 16 Athletics
Scott Harold 19 Aquatics
Garfield Beckett 19 Basketball
Rodney Copes 24 Basketball
Michael Dombrowski 22 Basketball
Steven Mills 19 Roller skate
Kevin Palmer 24 Basketball
Tara Ruark 17 Roller skate
Theo Wallace 28 Basketball
David Webster 19 Basketball
Alvin White 28 Basketball
Calvin White 28 Basketball
Francis White 26 Basketball
Jeff Wood 20 Basketball
James Armstead 18 Power lifting
James Hart 12 Athletics
Eugene Parran 19 Bowling
Cardell Bailey 13 Equestrian
Donald Sweigert 29 Bowling
Mario Washington 18 Tennis