While a Dixieland band played in the background, supporters and family members and even Mayor Marion Barry gathered yesterday to pat the Special Olympians on the back and wish them luck.

"You are going to bring back all the ribbons, aren't you?" Barry said, "Even if you don't, you are all winners."

This was it. After months and years of training, the athletes were ready to go for the gold.

"I'm going to break the world record," said Danny Smith, who runs a 6-minute mile despite a paralyzed right side. "It belongs in D.C."

Smith was one of 36 mentally retarded athletes who were being sent off in grand style from the Washington Plaza Hotel to the biggest event of their lives.

Today and for the next week, they will take part in the seventh annual International Special Olympics in South Bend, Ind., where 4,500 athletes, aged 10 through 80, will represent 1 million special olympians from more than 60 countries and 50 states.

The 36 athletes from the District will represent more than 2,500 D.C. special olympians in seven of 14 events being held on the campuses of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College.

The events include aquatics, track, basketball, bowling, volleyball, roller-skating and gymnastics.

"This team put in more time than any team I've seen," said Steve Mason, director of the District's Special Olympics program, who has been with the organization for 12 years.

Robert Shipley, catcher for the District's softball team, said the team had trained every day except yesterday since last summer. "We're the best," he said. "We can win it. But if we lose, it'll be no big deal."

Although winning it all would be nice, for most athletes such as Shipley the thrill of participation will be enough.

"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt," he said, quoting an oath for all Special Olympics athletes.

For Herbert Hemmerich, neither the thrill of victory nor the excitement of participation will be as nice as the gesture he plans to make for the apartment building where he lives. The residents of Massachusetts House in Northwest have been good to him and Hemmerich wants people to know that.

As Hemmerich runs past the University of Notre Dame grandstand next week on his final lap in a mile race, he will turn toward the crowd with arms raised high and shout at the top of his lungs, "Mass. House."

But for Smith, who began running six years ago, winning a gold medal and breaking a world record are the goals he has in mind. "I'm gonna break the record," Smith said with determination.

Smith's mother, Meater Smith, said she has always taught her son to keep his head high and never look back because "there is always somebody putting stumbling blocks in your way."

So, while the other athletes huddled together yesterday with family members to take snapshots and relish the send-off, Smith and his coach, Wayne Miller, talked serious strategy.

"We have a secret," said Miller, a veteran who lost his right leg in Vietnam. "All we care about is the clock. We're out to beat the clock."

"Should I wear the old shoes I wore for the last meet?" a concerned Smith asked his coach.

"No," Miller replied, "You should wear the new shoes. The indoor track at Notre Dame is one of the best. You don't need the old ones."