Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade Special Olympics: 32 years and still going strong

With the sound of the starting gun, Aisha Cancio, Arianna Hernandez and Natalie Soubelet took off toward the finish line.

The three girls, who all use wheelchairs, moved as fast as they could down the 10-meter course.

The crowd went wild.

“Let’s go!” people chanted from the bleachers. “You can do it!”

And they did.

The crowd erupted in applause when they crossed the finish line Sunday at the annual Miami-Dade Special Olympics track and field qualifying event at Traz Powell Stadium at Miami Dade College North Campus, 11380 NW 27th Ave.

Hernandez, who took first place and the blue ribbon, put her hands up in victory.

“It’s fun. I won,” said Hernandez, 31, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child and attends the Edgar J. Hall Special Population Center in Hialeah.

For her mother, the moment was “overwhelming.”

“When she was born, I was told she would never hear, never see, never walk,” said Ana Hernandez, holding back tears. “But look at her now.”

The wheelchair race is one of nearly 40 qualifying events that took place Sunday for the state games that will be held in Orlando in May. The games allow adults and children with mental and physical disabilities to participate in various athletic events including shot-put, long jump and distance races.

From its humble beginnings in 1983, the Miami-Dade games have grown from 30 athletes in the first year to about 580 on Sunday. There were also more than 2,000 volunteers, with many serving as “huggers.” Huggers do just that — lending support to the athletes throughout the games.

“I only have to get someone to come once and then I never have to ask again,” said Ed Smith, chairman of the event. “We couldn’t run this event without volunteers.”

Bucky Singer, who founded the event more than three decades ago and is still involved, said every year gets better.

“A tear came to my eye when I saw how many athletes were out here,” he said.

Funded by the David L. Singer Memorial Foundation — which Singer started in 1992 in memory of his son who died of cancer in 1989 — and hosted by the North Miami Beach Optimist Club, the event began with a parade of athletes with retired Miami Dolphins Player Nat Moore serving as the honorary chairman and retired Major League Baseball player Andre Dawson serving as master of ceremonies. Also hyping up the crowd: the Dolphins cheerleaders, the Marlins Energy Group, the Lady Panthers, Stanley C. Panther and the University of Miami cheerleaders.

For Cancio’s family, the Special Olympics brought the whole family together. More than 20 people wearing “Aisha 1” shirts gathered to cheer on the 35-year-old, who attends the Miami Cerebral Palsy Center. Though she took third place it didn’t matter.

“They are all winners,” her mother, Isis Mendez, said.