Joseph Bobinski Jr. started competing in the Special Olympics when he was just 10 years old. He was a mildly autistic child whose parents hoped he would benefit from interaction with teammates.
Six years later, the student at Reservoir High School in Howard County is a stronger, more confident athlete. The sport has helped him open up and communicate more, said his father, Joseph Bobinski Sr. "He looks forward to it and feels rewarded. He just enjoys running."
On Saturday, he competed in the 200- and 400-meter runs, and his dad, who coaches and coordinates the track-and-field athletes for Howard County, hopes Joey can move on to the 800-meter race.
Twenty-seven Howard County athletes came to this year's Maryland Special Olympics Summer Games, held this weekend at Towson University.
The event is expected to draw about 1,200 competitors ages 8 and up, in a variety of sports, including bocce, track and field, cheerleading, softball and swimming.
Nearly 1,000 volunteers help make the event run smoothly. They escort athletes to events, line them up to compete, make sure they have water and hand out medals.
Many of the athletes train for months. They are required to attend 80 percent of the practices during the spring season and must qualify for the statewide competition. All of the participants have some intellectual disability and some have physical disabilities.
While getting a medal is a joy for Joey, his father said, the events are more about enjoying the race or the game.
As Kaileigh Randall, 17, of Annapolis lined up to run, her two brothers cheered wildly on the sidelines. "Let's go, Kaileigh!"
Kaileigh looked a little jittery as eight other girls lined up with her. Her brothers, Kane and Cole, told their mom they were worried that their sister would be nervous when the starting gun went off.
Kaileigh hadn't slept for two days, said her mother, Colleen Randall. "She was so excited to come."
Kaileigh had watched her sister compete in high school sports, including cross country and swimming, and her goal was to go home with a medal.
But when the gun went off, she couldn't bring herself to run as the others forged ahead. She looked down nervously.
"Oh, well," her mother said. There was another event ahead.
The night before, Colleen Randall had tears in her eyes at the opening ceremony. "It is amazing to be here and be part of this," she said.
Sherry Ware said her 9-year-old son, Tyrique, who was competing in a running event, was adjusting to the people and the noise, but he still covered his ears with his hands so he wouldn't hear the guns go off at the start of each race.
Ware said she brought her son to show him that "he can get out there and do whatever the other kids do. It lets them know, you are not limited."
Dozens of older athletes sat by the bocce courts waiting to compete. The most senior was Bertina Williamson, who only began competing in the Special Olympics in the past few years, said her coach, Michael Janis, of Anne Arundel County.
"I like that game," said Williamson, 73.
Janis said Williamson has begun bowling and playing bocce recently with other residents of her group home.
The games continue from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, with a closing ceremony at 2:30 p.m.