KADENA AIR BASE, Japan - Thousands of volunteers, supporters and special-needs athletes and artists from all over Japan came to Kadena's Risner Fitness Center Nov. 17 to participate in or support the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics.
"This is an opportunity for the two communities to meet in joint service to the athletes and build a brother and sisterhood like the ancient Okinawa proverb that says, 'once we meet we are brothers and sisters forever,'" said Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy, 18th Wing commander.
The start of the events kicked off with an opening ceremony where the commander and other distinguished guests including a representative from the Okinawa Prefectural Government gave words of encouragement to the athletes.
One mother of a repeat athlete said even though this is her second time coming to KSO, her son, Keni Maeshiro, is excited to participate in the events and even wakes up earlier than normal to get ready.
With the opening ceremony complete, the athletes were able to explore the field with their "hugger" and compete in their respected events.
"Huggers" are service members from around the base who volunteered to help and encourage special-needs athletes both young and old from Okinawa and the United States throughout the event.
Even though it began to rain, the Olympians kept high spirits and continued to compete in their various events such as, softball, hockey, basketball, and track and field.
Kadena Special Olympics began in 2000 with approximately 400 athletes and 600 volunteers as an 18th Wing community goodwill initiative to strengthen U.S.-Okinawa relationships. After 13 years, the event has more than tripled in size and participation and even caught the attention of Dave Lenox, vice president of leadership development and education for the Special Olympics.
"(The KSO) is a really unique model," said Lenox, who traveled to Okinawa to check out the KSO in person. "It's community building at its core, and that's something that the rest of the Special Olympics is just now beginning to make as a priority. That's why I'm here, because it's one of the models we really want to try and replicate around the world."
Kadena Special Olympics brings the Okinawan and military communities together, said Lenox. It helps to build both communities by working together for a common goal: the experience of the athletes.
While the commander presented medals to the athletes and visited events, he said this is not a Kadena thing; this is an Okinawa service thing, and everyone was charged to help.
"This was an opportunity for us to open the gates and send out an invitation of celebration to the local community," Molloy said.