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JBLM's Special Olympics team ready for weekend games

Christine Burns (middle left) leads members of the JBLM Tigers Special Olympics team (from left) Kyle Burns, 13, Alex Burns, 9, Lilyanna Echols, 10, and Jonathan Hutchinson, 12, through stretching exercises during a recent practice at Cowan Stadium. The T

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Sometimes it can be hard to get 10-year-old Lilyanna Echols' attention.

At practice, a week before her second Summer Games appearance, the gold medalist, to her coaches and mother's dismay, likes to socialize. Whether it's between heats, or even during them as she looks out for friends (whether they're her opponents or not), it's tough to miss the smile and the bounce in her step as she buzzes through team practice - but it wasn't always this way.

"(Lilyanna) has a developmental delay and a (oppositional) defiant disorder," Malynda Echols, her mother said. "Seeing her win medals and try hard, not to mention make tons of friends - that's stuff she has problems with in the everyday world. It means everything to me because I see joy in her eyes. When she runs track and gets her medals, she tells everyone at school. Now she says ‘I'm special, and that's a good thing.'"

Lilyanna is one of 20 Joint Base Lewis-McChord Tigers, an FMWR-sponsored team that competes in Special Olympics events across the state and beyond. The team consists of 16 athletes and four unified partners. Unified partners are non-special needs children whose participation helps their understanding of Special Olympics athletes and the challenges they face, while also serving as a platform for their own athletic and social growth.

With events year round, the Tigers, who've been an active SOWA team for more than five years, compete in events anywhere from the bowling alley to the pool. They'll be out in force this weekend as JBLM once again hosts this year's Special Olympics of Washington Summer Games.

"The program here on JBLM is a little bit different than the average community team; we have a lot of turnover," Master Sgt. David Gross, one of the JBLM Tiger coaches, said. "We do compete in the (track and field) and swimming competitions, we compete in softball in the fall, bowling and basketball in the winter, which culminates with the state Winter Games."

Gross, 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade's senior career counselor and the father of a special needs teenager, said he got hooked on Special Olympics four years ago after he saw his son compete in the Summer Games.

"We had a parent step up to fill the head coach and coordinator role, and I stepped in to help out," he said. "It's something my sons and I can do together." Gross' youngest son is a unified partner with the team.

During evening practice with the Tigers, it's clear Gross wears no kid gloves. Instead, there are just different ways for him, and coaches Genia Stewart and Christine Burns to motivate athletes.

"We may be a small group, but we have athletes with a lot of diverse strengths and challenges," he said. "We have to bring all of that together, focusing on each, and on the group as a whole to help everybody get better.

"In the end it's about the kids learning and growing and doing the best they can and getting some recognition for that. We want to help them get some exercise and get them exposed to being a part of a team because a lot of special needs kids will have difficulties participating in school sports."

A dedicated group of parents also helps out the volunteer coaching staff. Malynda said having an athletics program like the Tigers is invaluable.

"It means a lot because other programs don't fall back to the kids who maybe can't keep up with the others," she said. "It promotes a pace that they can handle and they can just be one of the kids out there."

Staff Sergeant Michael Judy, a 627th Security Forces Squadron Canine Section Airman, has been volunteering with the Tigers for a couple of months. The JBLM McChord Field youth soccer coach said so far the experience has been very rewarding.

"It's been awesome to see their self confidence grow more and more with each practice," Judy said. "You can see their pride."

The father of two young daughters, he said watching the Tigers compete ranks next to watching his own kids thrive and makes him look forward to the future.

"It's great to see them realize that when they try, they can complete a lot of things," he said. "To see how much they get out of it is what I do it for, just to see them have a good time. I wish my own daughters were out here running too."

As dusk falls over Cowan and the laps and heats add up, Lilyanna and her teammates begin to drag. The smiling, charismatic young athlete drinks in her experiences ... and a lot of water.

"It's been really fun and I've made a lot of new friends," she said.

When asked about her chances to repeat as a 200 meter walk gold medalist this weekend, she shows the wisdom of a true champion.

"(If someone beats me) I would just say ‘congratulations,' and maybe I'll win next year - if not, I'll just congratulate that other person and thank them for walking with me," she said. "When I look back on these times I'll remember my teammates - how they're nice and how they're my friends."

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