Cheers of encouragement rang out on Friday morning from supporters lining the Santa Barbara City College track, urging 7-year-old Erick Rios to press on to the finish line.
With some help from a pediatric walker and special education aide Cheryl Giordani, Rios kept pressing toward the rid ribbon stretched across the track for him and about four other children as they raced during the annual Special Olympics Santa Barbara School Games.
Rios smiled at the cheers, taking joy in the encouragement from the sidelines and crossing the finish line first, surprising his teacher, who said he had not been as excited about the race during training.
"He loved the cheering," Giordani said as she helped the boy back into a wheelchair after his win. "They've been preparing for two months, and they know this day is going to be all about them, so when the day actually comes, it's huge."
Giordani has been a volunteer each year since the games started six years ago, along with her family — her son even built the podium for the winners as an Eagle Scout project.
She was with Rios last year during the race and said he was responding to the crowd in a way he wasn't before, smiling and enjoying himself.
Friday's event hosted more than 200 participants from special education and inclusion elementary, middle and high school schools from all over the county.
It's the sixth annual event hosted by the Special Olympics Southern California-Santa Barbara County Region.
Athletes participated in track and field events, including foot races, wheelchair races, a softball throw, a tennis ball throw, a tennis ball drop, standing long jump and running long jump.
The day kicked off just after 9 a.m. with a parade of the athletes circling the track, and students from more than 20 schools celebrated.
Children who placed first, second and third in the events received a ribbon from local law enforcement officers who were there to give the kids their awards as proud parents looked on and took photos.
One of those parents was Ilene Hancey, who watched as her 11-year-old son, Trev, got ready to run the 25-meter dash.
"It's pure joy," she said as kids ran past, high-fiving teachers and parents and reveling in the praise.
Trev, a fifth-grader at Peabody Charter School, has competed for the last three years and plays in the Challenger League at Girsh Park, both activities that celebrate the joy of competing, Hancey said.
"Our kids can't compete on the same level as their peers," she said, "and this gives them an opportunity to shine."