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It's all smiles at Special Olympics

A flood of athletes and volunteers sweep through Newberg

It doesn’t particularly matter what brings a person to a Special Olympics event for the first time because the result is so often the same: Once you give it a try, you’re hooked.

The Special Olympics Oregon Summer State Games, which were reinstated in Newberg in 2010 and returned for the sixth time Saturday and Sunday, might just be the epitome of that phenomena, as venues all over town were flooded with smiles, hugs and high fives of volunteers and athletes alike last weekend.SETH GORDON - SOOR athlete Travis Koski opened the ceremony Saturday evening with a guitar rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

“There’s nothing like it, really,” Cottage Grove local program coordinator Carmen Dowell said. “Once you start it, you can never stop. Then it’s in your blood.”

Dowell first volunteered as a bowling coach to help out a friend eight years ago and since then has become a tireless coach, organizer, unified partner and advocate.

Each year she creates a new theme to decorate the athletes’ tent at the bocce tournament while she and her partner, Monica, fully embrace the good times by wearing silly hats and socks throughout that competition.

During Saturday night’s Games Ceremonies at Newberg High School, Dowell was one of two people honored for personifying the spirit of Special Olympics, receiving the Les Schwab Pride and Performance Award for volunteers.

“The reason I do this is because of my best friend, Monica,” Dowell told the crowd. “I love you Monica. With so much negativity and hatred out there in the world these days, we’ve just got to continue to love one another.”

Recent Century High School graduate Travis Koski not only competed in track and field over the weekend, but wowed the crowd with his musical prowess, playing the national anthem on his electric guitar at the Games Ceremonies.

Koski was the athlete recipient of the Pride and Performance award, drawing praise for his attitude and willingness to help others.

“He always comes to practice prepared and willing to spend all the positivity he can on the team,” Games Ceremonies emcee Nick Krupke told the crowd in making the announcement. “He’s willing to help everybody else, teach them the skills and the drills. This athlete’s coach was new to soccer and she says that he ‘was a wealth of knowledge,’ always willing to help out.”

Koski was equally poised in accepting the award as he was in shredding through “The Star Spangled Banner” just a little while earlier.

“All I have to say is I would rather be no place else tonight on planet Earth but right here,” Koski said. “Since the first time I stepped on that track seven years ago when I started Special Olympics, let’s just say all of you are like brothers and sisters to me.”

McMinnville police officer Pam Ramsey, who has been instrumental in organizing her department’s participation in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run and introduced a plane pull fundraiser last summer, was honored with the Ken Davis Unsung Hero Award.

The weather forecast was quite dismal leading up to the event and Special Olympics Oregon vice president for sports Mark Hanken said the goal at the games is always to be “stubbornly defiant,” but the athletes and volunteers only had to endure about 30 minutes of rain during the Games Ceremonies Saturday night and a few sprinkles Sunday.

Representatives of Special Olympics Oregon were also effusive in their praise for Newberg as a host site.

“If we could, we’d give everybody in Newberg a gold medal for everything you’ve done for us,” board chairman Kerry Tymchuk said.

Instead, Tymchuk presented gold medals to Newberg Mayor Bob Andrews and Ken Austin, whose monetary donation brought the Summer State Games to Newberg six years ago.

Austin opted to give his medal to Andrews to display at city hall, saying it was a medal for the citizens of the town, not for him.

“I just want to thank everybody for having six great years,” Austin said. “It couldn’t be done without all of the volunteers, all of the law enforcement people and especially the Special Olympics people. I just feel grateful that we’ve been able to share this with all of you.”