Running - and winning - at their own pace

By Andrew Schotz

ALBANY — Trackside at the University at Albany, Eleanor Alland waited and waited on Saturday, in wilting heat, for her son to compete.

Real time was well behind scheduled time at the Special Olympics’ Capital District Summer Games, but Mrs. Alland didn’t move from her spot beside the fence.

Finally, it was Alland’s turn. He lined up on the track with three other men.

Alland, who will turn 54 on Saturday, had the outside lane.

The starter’s pistol sounded and the four men broke ahead, each at his own pace. The race was a 400-meter walk.
Within 20 seconds, Alland was a few lengths behind. "C’mon, Jim, get going," his mother called encouragingly. "Move faster. A little faster."

Mrs. Alland knew her son’s chances were best if he could veer to the inside lane first — which he did not do. But he finished ahead of two others, earning a second-place medal. Once around the track took the field around four minutes.
"I did very well," Alland said afterwards, noting that he walks for exercise every Thursday.

Now living at a Cohoes group home run by The Center for the Disabled, Alland shelves books full-time at the New York State Library in Albany. He has held his job for 28 years.

Mrs. Alland, a longtime Altamont resident who moved to the Avalon retirement community in August, said her son likes sports, but wasn’t an athlete growing up.

It wasn’t until his adult years that he took part in Special Olympics.
"I think he’s very proud to be in the events," she said. "He talks about it quite a while."
Alland’s interest, she said, lies more in the social fun. "He likes people and he likes to be doing things with people."

James Alland moved out of his parents’ home around 1985, one of the first people to try an apartment-living program for people with mental disabilities, his mother said.

With Saturday’s schedule running behind, Alland had little time after his 400-meter walk to cool down.

Off he went to a patch of grass outside the track for the shot put competition.

Alland’s best toss among three tries was 4.0 meters. His only opponent managed 3.1 meters on his best throw. Alland had earned a second medal.

Not about defeat

In the meantime, Sari Virkler was whiling away the time between her events.

Virkler already had a gold medal for winning a 50-meter dash. She wore it around her neck and referred to it, and pointed to it, a few times during an interview. By the end of the day, she had three of them.

After the events ahead of hers were finally over, Virkler ran the 100-meter dash and finished first. Then, she was part of a 400-meter relay team that finished first, too.

It was about six years ago that her father, Ed Virkler, encouraged her to get moving.
"I was just trying to motivate her to get some serious exercise," he said.

It worked. Virkler, 27, has become a runner and a competitor.
Eric Wohlleber, the director of public affairs for Special Olympics New York, overheard Virkler say she has fewer than 100 medals, but possibly " hmm, maybe more than 50"
"Why don’t you count how many medals"" he suggested.
Virkler balked. "I don’t want homework," she said.

But she counted again in her head, then downgraded her medal estimate to about 20. She said she has hung up a bunch of them at The Center for the Disabled's group home in Altamont, which used to be known as Helderberg House. She has lived there for about two years.

Eleanor Alland knows the home well. She and her late husband, Peter, were among those who helped start the group home in 1974.

Ed Virkler said it’s been a better, more welcoming neighborhood for her than his daughter’s last group home. The Virklers live on Leesome Lane. It helps to be in your hometown, waving to friends and neighbors as you walk from place to place, he said.

Virkler works at Chuck E. Cheese in Latham twice a week, helping however she can. She said she pitches in for Meals on Wheels and at The Daughters of Sarah Senior Community, too.

She explained, in short bits, what she likes about Special Olympics: her coaches, meeting people, running.
Her father’s theory: "It’s the feeling of importance that I can do something everyone else can do."

Virkler’s mother, Sherrill, told a story that seems to tie together Special Olympics’ relaxed and competitive halves.

In the middle of a race, one of her daughter’s friends, who was running against her, fell to the track. Virkler stopped, saw that her friend was okay — then kept going.
"They all try hard to win," Ed Virkler said, "but not to the extent that they try to defeat other kids."
"This is a real competition," John D’Alessandro of Halfmoon, the vice president of public affairs for Special Olympics New York, said Saturday. "A lot are there just to get better. But some are there to rise up and excel."

He mentioned a 140-pound athlete from the Syracuse area who once deadlifted about 500 pounds in a powerlifting competition.

About 700 athletes competed in the Capital District Summer Games at the University at Albany, coming from as far as Poughkeepsie, Plattsburgh and Rochester.

Many will move on to Special Olympics’ statewide games June 16 to 19 on Long Island.

Wohlleber said about 3,000 athletes are expected.

One of them will be Virkler, with her three gold medals.

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