Ask Kris Milstead, one of the Aquatics Team coaches for Special Olympics of Lake Norman, what the word special means to her and you're likely to get a description that goes beyond the dictionary version.
"As a parent of a special needs child it brings joy to see my daughter be able to be a part of a team and feel the excitement of competition. The smiles that our athletes wear on their faces speak a thousand words," said Milstead, who lives in Mooresville's Wyndham Shores area.
Similar accolades are voiced by most involved in Special Olympics, a year-round sports training and competition program for children and adults.
The Lake Norman chapter, based in Mooresville, became an accredited local program of Special Olympics North Carolina in 2007.
For many participants, it is often the first time they can take center stage
With 128 members, the program offers basketball, athletics, bowling, golf, soccer, aquatics, bocce, gymnastics, skiing, tennis, softball and sailing. It has been administered through the Town of Mooresville Recreation Department since January 2009.
The athletes range in age from 10 to 43 years.
Milstead's daughter Kristen, 19, a junior at Lake Norman High School, participates in the aquatics and swimming program.
"Kristen is a loving child," according to her mom. "She always has a smile on her face. Not many parents get all the hugs and kisses we do from our teenage daughter. Kristen also loves the water so this program was a perfect fit."
The aquatics team, dubbed the Lake Norman Hammerheads, will begin their fourth season in February, according to water sports coordinator Sara Roland. Roland lives near Fern Hill Road. "The Lowe's YMCA in Mooresville has been generous in allowing us to practice at their facility each year and we look forward to the partnership continuing this next season," she said. "Athletes typically practice four months (February - May), twice per week, and those who qualify for the State Games in Raleigh, have the opportunity to compete on a state level."
Roland says her biggest thrill is watching the athletes "practice together, compete together, laugh and support each other." Larry and Pauline Portonova coach the soccer team.
"Our athletes range in age from 21 to 43. Our co-ed team comprised of six boys and four girls just returned from the annual Fall Games in High Point," said Larry Portonova. "It took lots of hours and volunteers to make it happen, but the reward is well worth it."
The cost for providing equipment, uniforms and travel is approximately $25,000 per year and the group does not receive any government funding, relying entirely on contributions from the local community as well as small fundraisers.
One of those is the Race City Civitan Polar Plunge, scheduled for Feb. 5. Residents have the opportunity to raise funds by running into a cold Lake Norman. All of the funds go to Special Olympics. Last year the Plunge raised over $2,500.
Tom Nixon, who coordinates the Lake Norman Special Olympics, says they are always looking for more volunteers, as well as athletes, to participate.
"We find that participation in Special Olympics helps to develop and improve physical fitness, generate more self-confidence, increase socialization skills and encourage a commitment to learning and growing."
For Milstead, who by day works as a community property manager for Cedar Management in Charlotte, the value of the program is priceless.
"It brings joy to see my daughter be part of a team and feel the excitement of competition," said Milstead. "A fourth-place ribbon can bring so much excitement.
"Most kids would not be happy with fourth place but for these special individuals it is a sense of accomplishment that they did their best."