A special opportunity to blossom

June 29, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Claremont School in East Baltimore held an assembly last month, honoring its Special Olympics state participants and its sole entrant in the World Games, Julia Jones.

"Everyone was cheering her," said Lisa Shubow, the track and field coach at Claremont. "I raised her arm as if she was a winner. She was beaming all over the place. And she has a smile that will make your heart melt."

Jones, 17, isn't the fastest sprinter among Special Olympics athletes in Maryland. She isn't even the fastest at Claremont, a school for students with disabilities, ages 12 to 21.

So, how is it that she is the only representative at the World Games from the Baltimore City public schools?

Because Special Olympics celebrates mentally retarded athletes of different ages and abilities, and the selection process contains an element of luck.

Special Olympics uses quotas to allot the number of U.S. slots in the World Games (about 2,500), the number of Maryland slots (67) and the number of Maryland track and field slots (seven).

Jones became eligible by winning a gold medal in her division at the state level. Special Olympics Maryland then put the names of the division winners in a drawing and randomly selected those who would advance, sport by sport.

Another Baltimore athlete, Corey Roberson of the St. Elizabeth School, last night won a gold medal in the shot put. Roberson, 16, participated in the 15-18-year-old bracket, mid-level ability.

Jones has yet to compete, but she, too, heard the magic words: Come on down!

"She didn't believe it," said Jones' mother, Barbara. "At first, she thought she was just going to the State Games in Maryland. Then, when I told her she was going to North Carolina for the World Games, she really got excited about it. She realized this was a bigger event than she had been in before."

Until this week, Barbara Jones said that her daughter had never flown on a plane, and never been away from home for longer than a weekend during overnight trips with the Girl Scouts.

The World Games last nine days. Seven thousand athletes from more than 150 countries are staying in residence halls on the campuses of the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State and Meredith College.

"I don't think Julia can really conceptualize this," said Dot Steinacker, the assistant principal at Claremont. "It's something you just can't imagine until you see it.

"She'll be more excited when she comes back than when she left. It's like visiting 100 different cultures at the same time."

Jones struggled for words to describe the experience last night while waiting to run in her preliminary 100-meter heat at N.C. State. Corbett Logan, her Team Maryland coach, said she was overwhelmed.

"Being away from home, the crowds, the lines, the practices, the heat -- it's a lot," Logan said. "She's not able to express it yet. She's not used to so many people being around.

"She gets self-conscious sometimes. But I think she really knows that this is truly an experience for her. She's having a lot of fun, more fun than I've seen her have since I've been working with her."

Barbara Jones said Julia was quiet and shy before joining Special Olympics seven years ago. The program helped her become more outgoing, even through tragedy.

Julia's father, Michael, died of a heart attack on Good Friday in 1995. Her only sister, LaToya, 21, was shot to death last Christmas. She has two brothers, Michael, 19, and Nesbitt, 12.

Barbara Jones said that it took Julia awhile to understand her father was gone, and that she was just getting re-acquainted with her sister, who had moved back with the family only a year before her murder.

Special Olympics was her outlet.

"It inspires her," Barbara said. "It helps her come out of her shell, communicate with others. She used to be quiet, to herself. Now, she likes to talk with other people. She makes friends."

Added Shubow, a physical education teacher at Claremont, said: "She has learned to speak up, keep her head up, be more outgoing. That will be important for her when she eventually leaves school and has to go into the working world. She really has blossomed."

And the World Games are her reward.

Jones will compete in the 100 meters and running long jump. Her mother, two brothers and a friend are driving down from Baltimore this weekend. They've never seen her run in Special Olympics before.

"I'm so excited, I wish I was there now," said Barbara, a bus attendant for special-needs children with the city schools. "I'm just sorry I couldn't make it. Financially, I couldn't do it. But I can't wait. I've already got a lot of film to take a lot of pictures."

Jones' brother, Michael, sounded equally proud.

"She doesn't give up, you know?" he said. "She doesn't ever quit at something she puts her heart to. I believe in her."

She isn't the fastest sprinter, not in her school, not in her state. But Special Olympics works differently. And no one could deny that Julia Jones deserved this chance.

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