MUSCATINE, Iowa -- After a week of fretting over a Department of Education proposal to nix funding for the Special Olympics, athletes, family members and coaches breathed a sigh of relief and returned to what they did best.
Backstroke, butterfly or freestyle, several dozen athletes, put their best swim styles on the line to compete in the Special Olympics East Area district competition Saturday morning at Muscatine High School's Carver Pool. Parents and coaches cheered and clapped.
23-year-old Justine Laing sailed ahead in the 50-meter freestyle to take first place.
"It's exciting, especially it's a good gift for my mom, because it's her birthday coming up, and it's also my nieces my first birthday," she said. "So it`s a gift for them."
Win or not though, she says swimming and competing has helped her with her depression, panic and anxiety disorders.
"It's calming. It's a really great form of exercise," she said.
Others agree it's not about taking first place but about self-confidence and a sense of community.
Tracy Rininger, who was at the swim meet to cheer for her son Adam, an 18-year-old high school senior, said he used to be very shy and reserved: "Since joining the Special Olympics, it's been seven years, he's more outgoing, he's more confident."
She said the Special Olympics has given her son and her so much, that in February they went on Capitol Hill to plead with members of Congress against funding cuts.
"We met with our four representatives and both senators," she said. "Adam told his story about Special Olympics and what it means to him."
It's clear these athletes aren't just in it for themselves.
Rininger says the Special Olympics have impacted her son's classmates.
"They learn from each other, and you get a very supportive environment that goes off the court or the pool area into school, into the hallway," she said.
Justine Laing says she's setting an example for her niece who also has special needs.
"I just want them to be proud and be confident in what they`re doing," Laing said.