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Special Olympics, special people make life better

Cheers erupted as hands were removed from hearts and torch-bearer Evelyn Lynn officially opened the Area 10 Special Olympics swim meet on Friday in Rochester.

We were among the cheering fans. For us, who won wasn't nearly as important as watching the swimmers, who heard our cheers. Applause washed over the competitors, whether they came in first or last, and produced smiles.

It, indeed, takes a community to create such magic. Police associations across the country and around the world raise money through special events, corporations donate food and material, and youths and adults from the Rochester Orcas swim club donate their time. Without them, the swimmers from Rochester, Northfield, Red Wing and Faribault wouldn't have been able to come together.

Much is heard about deteriorating sportsmanship in games played by professionals, collegians and high-schoolers and watched by fans who complain about referees, mock opponents and engage in behavior that in other settings would cause them to be shamed. There is none of that here.

Rachel, our daughter who has Asperger's syndrome, is among the swimmers.

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It's been a long and sometimes painful journey since we first heard the diagnosis in grade school. Social awkwardness and the inability to read interpersonal cues that others take for granted caused Rachel no small amount of pain.

Our first thought was that with enough work, she could grow out of it. She has grown to be an adult, one whose life cannot be defined or limited by the syndrome any more than others can be defined by their occupations. The desire to discover a "miracle cure'' is perhaps only selfishness on our part.

Rachel waves from poolside, puts her goggles on and dives in the water. Soon, she walks up the stands to show off a ribbon. She announces that she shaved 10 seconds off her previous best time.

Other parents and friends share the joy with their own children. The scene will be repeated next month during the state meet.

Rachel has other things on her mind. Her dad has yet to fix the bike's flat tire, She depends on it to get around Rochester. At first, when she wanted the bike, we resisted, fearing that it would be far too dangerous. But the bike provides her precious freedom in a world somewhat regimented by group-home living. She lives in a wonderful place, with a spacious backyard and caring staff.

There are times when she feels that she isn't respected or loved. When those times wash over her, she calls, crying. We all have moments when we feel like that. It is a frustratingly normal part of our lives.

People say that society's values are proven by how the weakest and most vulnerable among us are treated. There is certain wisdom in the New Testament statement that love, faith and hope are great gifts, but love is the greatest of all.

Rachel calls at 7 a.m. the next day, wondering if I had gotten the bike fixed yet. It's been cold.

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"That's just an excuse,'' she says. "Dad, you've got to get it fixed right away.''

I promise her that I will. The metal is cold to the touch. A bolt or two is loose, and the tire is flat.

Rachel calls again to say that the bike shop has dozens of new models. Some are even better than the one she has. Their cost seems prohibitive.

"You do want me to be safe, don't you,'' she replies.

We have sought that for 20 years.

At first, my thought was to keep her safe by keeping her at home. It wasn't what she wanted or needed. She moved out a couple months after graduation and vowed that she would never come back. She's since relented by making a certain peace with her father, with whom she so often butted heads. Rachel comes home for a day or two. She chides her father for his weaknesses, prepares a great meal and takes a walk with me. This life isn't what either one of us expected it to be.

Maybe that is a good thing for both of us.

Special people and the Special Olympics have made so many lives better through love.

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