The annual competition brings smiles, medals to area kids with special needs.

For the past four years, Cierra Williams has participated in the Area IX Special Olympics Bowling Tournament, and just like every year she’s hoping to walk away with a top prize. Williams and other Pine Bluff School District students bowled in the annual tournament at Thunder Lanes on Monday.

“I like to try and get better,” Pine Bluff High School 10th grader Williams said, citing the reason she continues to participate in the competition. “I try to win like first place every time I come. Sometimes, I win silver medals or gold medals...”

There are 392 athletes registered to compete over the next three weeks, according to Director of Area IX Special Olympics, Travis Chisom. Athletes from the following schools will compete on these dates: Sheridan – Oct. 24; Dollarway – Oct. 26; Jenkins Memorial Center school aged students – Oct. 30; Jenkins center females – Oct. 31; Jenkins center males – Nov. 2; Star City – Nov. 7; Watson Chapel – Nov. 9; and White Hall — Nov. 10.

“We try to make it as Olympic style as we can,” Chisom said. “We give Olympic-style medals and they leave here recognized for their accomplishments.” According to its website, Special Olympics was founded in 1968 and has since become the “world’s largest program of sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.”

And Special Olympics Arkansas provides support for approximately 15,000 athletes wanting to train and/or compete in aquatics, softball, volleyball, unified football, powerlifting, bocce, track and field, basketball, bowling, ice speed, figure skating, floor hockey, gymnastics and cycling.

“It’s something we try to offer to the athletes that don’t have an opportunity to have athletics on the scholastic level,” Chisom said of the competitions. “They look forward to it from one year to the next, especially if they get a gold medal. It’s very important to them.”

The winners from the competitions will go on to Little Rock to compete in the state competition in December.

“…It gives them some success, some victory, the comradery, team spirit and just the athletic ability is something I think that they enjoy,” said Broadmoor Elementary School special education teacher Darnesia Carter. “They enjoy the participation because they are a part of it.”

Williams isn’t the only one looking forward to getting a gold medal. Pine Bluff High School 10th grader Aysa Sanders, who has been involved in the competition for the last two years, wants to continue her winning streak during this year’s competition.

“I hope to get another gold medal,” Sanders said. Even though Jovanni Chavarri was new to the competition, it didn’t stop him from setting his sights on a medal either. The W.T. Cheney Elementary school fifth grader said he was fan of bowling.

“I’m looking forward to seeing if I can win,” Chavarri said.

For more than 20 years, Mary Williams has supported the Special Olympics. As a Pine Bluff School District special education self-contained teacher, she says the impact the competitions have on the students are vital to their growth and development in and out of school.

“They really love being together with each other,” she said. “All the schools coming together are about the students. Each year they look forward to this event and nothing in the world can keep me from helping them get to this point.”