By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL

Coweta athlete Clayton Carroll won gold and Brandon Rasch took bronze in the running long jump at the State Summer Games.

A group of local athletes recently participated in the Georgia Special Olympics State Summer Games, held over a long weekend at Emory University.

Coweta athletes competed in swimming and track and field, as well as the opening ceremonies for the games. The annual event includes overnight stays in the dorms at Emory, a dance, and a lot of camaraderie and fun.

More than 1,800 athletes and coaches from around Georgia participated in the State Summer Games, in sports including swimming, track and field, gymnastics, flag football, soccer, table tennis, tennis and volleyball.

“It’s a good bonding experience,” parent Lynn Marshall said of the state games. Her daughter, Brooke, competes in swimming, bowling, cheerleading and track and field at the local spring games, and was on the swim team for the state games.

“They love the weekend,” Marshall said. “They cheer each other on, it’s just a fabulous experience,” she said.

“To me, it’s amazing how they are so happy for each other, they are just incredibly proud of each other, whether they win a gold, or win a bronze… that’s the biggest part of why we got involved with it,” she said. “It’s just so wonderful. I can’t even tell you how great it is.”

Her daughter has been competing in Special Olympics since she was 5. The first two years she went to the state games for swimming, she was the youngest athlete there, her mother said. Brooke currently competes in freestyle in the 25 and 50 meter and on the relay team.

The Marshall family decided to get Brooke involved in Special Olympics so she could both have social interaction and physical activity.

“It’s very social and it’s very good physically for them. Each team member has various capacities and it’s just good to be with like athletes, athletes that are the same and athletes that are different,” Marshall said.

Katie McKoy’s daughter Zoe is also a swimmer and brought home two gold medals and one bronze from the state games.

“Zoe loves attending the state games with her friends and coaches from Special Olympics,” McKoy said. “It gives her a chance to shine and to do her best.”

Swimming with Coweta County Special Olympics has given Zoe confidence and improved her physical and mental health – and she’s built friendships, McKoy said.

“We are so thankful for all the work that Coweta County Special Olympics does for people like Zoe,” she said. “These experiences make her life better and translate into skills that extend beyond the pool and into her everyday life.”

Under state rules, there can only be six weeks of official practice swimming to prepare for the state games, said Charles “Bo” Ray, Special Olympics coordinator for Coweta County.

He picks the athletes that will go to the state games each year. Unlike other competitions, there’s no requirement to win a certain place at a local competition to advance to the state games.

Instead, athletes and their parents can file paperwork if they are interested in the state games, and Ray will consider that paperwork and whether the athlete is mature enough for the overnight trip.

“It’s the being out of town, being able to stay over night, being able to practice what you’ve been taught over the years in school,” Ray said.

“I’ll invite as many as I can, and I try to invite different athletes each year,” he said.

The Summer Games start early on Friday morning with preliminaries, and then dinner and the opening ceremonies.

“The opening ceremonies is always such a big event,” Ray said. “They play music and light the torch, which was lead by the Atlanta Police Department.”

Law enforcement agencies from around the state participated in a 1,000 mile torch relay across Georgia leading up to the opening ceremonies.

Athletes who go to state games get to meet friends they made in previous year and at other events. “Everybody knows everybody,” Ray said.