As Starr Kluttz and Katie Degnan traversed the grounds of historic Los Angeles Coliseum as part of the opening ceremonies at the Special Olympics World Games two weeks ago, their family members experienced equal levels of pride and appreciation from opposite ends of the country.
Katie’s parents, Mike and Jackie Degnan of Charlotte, were in the audience, seated next to families from Botswana and Egypt. They didn’t understand one another, but they spoke the universal language of excitement for their children.
Starr’s mother Sylvia and her brother Keith watched the ceremonies on ESPN at home in Cabarrus County. They were ecstatic to see Starr on TV as one of about 6,500 athletes from around the world.
Starr Kluttz and Katie Degnan both won medals at the World Games and returned to a hero’s welcome at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Aug. 3. Using words like awesome and exciting to describe their experience, they agree they had the time of their lives.
“I told momma, ‘You saw your baby girl on TV,’” said Kluttz, a 52-year old Rimertown resident.
“I’m very proud to be a USA Team member,” said Degnan, 22. “I felt emotional when I saw the crowd yelling ‘USA’ at the opening ceremonies. It was a joy when I was there and meeting lots of people from different countries.”
Kluttz and Degnan were among the four Special Olympics athletes from North Carolina participating in the World Games. Competitors are chosen by a lottery system according to the sports they participate in on local and state levels.
Paige Soderman, who lives in Charlotte but participates in Special Olympics of Cabarrus County, attended the World Games as a volunteer. She passed out information to attendees and served as a greeter at the soccer venue.
Almost 170 countries were represented in the 25 Special Olympics sports. ESPN and Sports Illustrated both provided coverage.
In Los Angeles, Kluttz stayed at the University of Southern California, where the aquatics events were held. Degnan stayed at UCLA, which hosted tennis.
Degnan was accompanied on the trip by her parents. Kluttz’s cousin, Beth Lomax of Concord, traveled with her.
“My No.1 role was trying to be the loudest one in the stands when she was swimming,” said Lomax.
At the opening ceremonies, USA Team members, including Kluttz and Degnan, were greeted by swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. Kluttz was one of about 40 randomly selected athletes who were whisked away to a private room to meet with first lady Michelle Obama, who served as honorary co-chairwoman of the games with President Barack Obama.
“There was a lot of security,” said Kluttz. “You had to take everything out of your pocket. We got to take some pictures with her and it was fun. It was so fun to meet her. She’s a friendly person. She said go ahead and win some medals for swimming. I hugged her and she wished me luck.”
Special Olympics athletes are placed in divisions according to their ability levels. Within her division, Degnan defeated two others to clinch a gold medal. She also got to meet former tennis champions Pete Sampras and Pam Shriver.
“(My opponent in the gold medal round) had trouble serving so I had to be patient with her,” said Degnan. “She was from Austria. I won 6-0. I was very excited that I won.”
Kluttz won a bronze in the 50-meter freestyle event and initially finished first in the backstroke. Judges ruled that she rolled her shoulder at the finish and she was disqualified.
Aside from competing, the women had fun visiting attractions around Los Angeles including Hollywood Boulevard and Santa Monica Beach.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: email@example.com.