PHOENIX — A big sendoff in Phoenix Friday recognized 115 of Arizona's most dedicated and passionate athletes.
"The community loves them. Special Olympics Arizona loves them and how hard they have worked," said Special Olympics Arizona's Nick Dinsmore. "It is appreciated."
Special Olympics Arizona is headed to Florida to compete in next week's USA Games.
"This is a bucket-filler for me. It just overflows me with joy and excitement," said Coach Joe C. Steele, III.
Coach Steele enjoys seeing the athletes get excited. He's got seven, including Connor Smith, running in the games.
"It's awesome just being able to compete on every single level and have fun," said Smith.
Smith has been with the organization since 1998.
"I was diagnosed with autism at age 3. And, the thing that hurt me the most was everywhere I went, rejection always got in the way," Smith said.
For Smith, the Special Olympics provides comfort.
"It makes me feel wanted. Like I was wanted by something. It is hard to have autism when you don't fit in," Smith said.
This will be Smith's first time on the big stage.
"It's never about the medals you earn. The real reward is being with every single athlete you care about and spend time with and love also," added Smith.
Like Smith, many athletes feel grateful to be included.
"That's the reason I like being part of the Special Olympics," said Paige Harris. "I can achieve things I can do and do more of."
The goal for Special Olympics Arizona is to make sure the athletes have a good time. At the end of the day, the Special Olympics staff says, it's just a game.
"They obviously want to do their best and come home with the best possible outcome. But, as long as they all enjoy themselves, we know we have done our part at Special Olympics," said Dinsmore.
Which keeps Smith and other athletes going for the gold.
"That space made me feel like I am somebody, that I am able to be someone out of my shadow and out of my shell," added Smith.