WARWICK — Zach Fontaine stepped up to the line and gave it his best shot. In fact, he gave it his three best shots.
The 16-year-old student at Tollgate High School was all smiles as he stepped back to the sidelines and watched his competition reach for their personal best in the Softball Throw, one of several events in a Special Olympics event held last weekend at Bishop Hendricken High School.
“I don’t care what medal I get. I like doing this,” said Fontaine, 16.
Last year, Fontaine earned a gold medal in the event, but he’s just as happy to see either of his other two teammates in this round — both of whom also attend Tollgate High School — take the top spot this year.
In the end, Fontaine won the silver this year, with Jessica Jewett, 19, earning bronze and Brian Camerlin, 16, winning the gold in the event.
On the medal podium, under bright, sunny skies, the trio smiled and waved to a round of applause from family members and supporters, each genuinely happy to be part of the special day.
“I love it,” Camerlin said of the Olympiad.
His mother Erin noted how important it is for her son, who is challenged by autism, to be able to enjoy a day of friendly competition in which he can also have a great deal of fun.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said, hugging him after the medal ceremony.
“He becomes very disappointed when he can’t play,” she added, noting how the season for these athletes is drawing to a close, with only one more major competition slated to take place for the year in the next few weeks.
The opportunity to showcase their athletic skills is a big deal for the approximately 400 Special Olympians who competed in the daylong event, many of whom like Camerlin are challenged by autism, or experience physical disabilities, which may
slow their progress on the running track, but do not dampen their spirits.
The Special Olympics forum at Bishop Hendricken, in which about 400 athletes competed in three field events – shot put, softball toss and tennis ball toss – as well as several running events on the school’s track – including races in the 50-meters, 400-meters and 4-x-200 relay categories — dates back to the 1970s. Joe Adamec, who was then an English teacher and track and field coach, and now is a semi-retired guidance counselor, was the school’s liaison with the Rhode Island Special Olympics. Adamec’s passion for athletics and helping the disabled were a good fit with the school’s mission to serve others, and thus a partnership was born.
Bishop Hendricken's role through the years has been to support the Special Olympics staff and its regular volunteers, who manage this event and several others across the state each year. The school supplies its stadium and field space, chairs and tables, restrooms and a snack bar. More than 100 students — as well as about a dozen alumni and a dozen faculty and staff members — volunteer their Friday morning to help set up and Saturday from approximately 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. to host the competition.
Hendricken senior Jon Petteruti had a great view of the action as he stood on the track at the finish line waving a flag to signal the start of races.
“You can’t help but smile when you’re out here,” Petteruti, 17, said.
“It’s great how competitive the athletes are, yet supportive of each other.”
Jenelle Jean, 17, of West Warwick gave it her all in the 50-meter run, earning her a silver medal in the event.
Competing in the Special Olympics is something she very much looks forward to each year.
“I not only get to see people like me, but I also get to compete with people like me,” said Jean, who has cerebral palsy. “It’s a really good feeling when you can support people who are like you.”
Danielle Black, a caretaker who has assisted Jean and others in the West Warwick athletes group for the past two years, said that for those competing the camaraderie at the event is more important for them than the medals.
“It’s about being around other people like them,” Black said.
Senior Colin Murphy, 18, has volunteered at the event for two of his four years at Hendricken, and describes it as an amazing experience.
“They always have smiles on their faces. It speaks to their strength,” he said.
Jacob Rosati, 11, a member of the Warwick Superstars, won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. It was especially gratifying for him to compete in the race alongside his brother Joseph, who is also autistic. On the sidelines, their triplet brother Vincent watched along with his father, who is also named Vincent, and mom Lynn.
“I feel really good,” Jacob told his family as they gathered for a group hug after the race.
For the parents, watching their sons take part in the Special Olympics is always a happy occasion.
“It gives them a lot of social interaction,” dad said.
“They absolutely love it. They get to be with their peers,” mom added.
For Hendricken freshman Alexander Boyer, the event was his first introduction to the proud tradition at his school. As he logged the athletes' times between races, he said that far too often, people do not take the time to notice how truly capable those with various challenges are and to celebrate their contributions.
“Today, they get to do something that’s completely about them, and that doesn’t happen very often,” he said.