On a gray and drizzly Sunday morning not at all suited to playing softball, the Away Boys Special Olympics team is doing just that, trying to get in one last game before hitting the road.
"The rain is so great," says Chris Knill, 33, of Dumfries, who runs a lawn care business out of his family's home. "It's going to make the grass grow."
For $20, Knill deploys his arsenal of push mowers and lawn trimmers on neighborhood lawns. But for the next week, Knill is going to be busy on fields farther from home.
As a result of winning a state qualifying tournament last year, Knill, who has a learning disability, and his teammates on the Away Boys are headed to the 10th Special Olympics World Games in Raleigh, N.C., which will begin Saturday and run through July 4.
But the Away Boys is not your imagined team of Special Olympians: Seven of the 15 team members are known as "unified partners" -- participants who are not mentally disabled. Dean Munson, 29, a math teacher in an Alexandria public school, is not disabled. Nor is Alex Waleisky, 54, a site manager for the Department of Energy, or his son Chuck, 27.
"We found partners from society that have strengths in sports similar to athletes," said Coach Frank Dashnaw, who has two sons on the team, Frankie, 24, who is disabled, and Lance, 17, who is not. "We just made sure the team was well-balanced."
Meanwhile, Alex Waleisky's son, Stevie, 25, is the team's assistant coach -- an example of the way the team has blurred the traditional roles of coach and player, father and son, disabled and not.
The Away Boys is part of a movement to integrate high-functioning special athletes and members of their local communities. At the World Games, eight of 19 sports will include unified divisions.
"Our tendency toward mainstreaming comes from the very simple insight that people with mental disabilities want to be treated the same as everyone else," said the president of Special Olympics, Tim Shriver, the son of organization founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. "Unified sports are a great way to break down barriers. To be teammates, working toward the same goal, facing adversity, struggling from defeat and rejoicing in victory -- these are all experiences of the heart.
"Sports is a kind of universal language, much like music -- something we have in common rather than something that distinguishes us."
Pitcher Scott Pederson jumps into Coach Dashnaw's van to escape the rain. He is soaked, and the first thing he does is take off his uniform to replace it with a dry shirt. On his stomach is a red welt.
"I flattened one pitch, and the guy hit it right back at me," says Pederson, 24, of Dale City. "When I lose my concentration, I flatten my pitches, and that only gives the ball more energy."
When he was 13, Pederson decided he wanted to pitch. For seven years, he worked with his father to perfect his technique. Now he is one of the Away Boys' starting pitchers.
Pederson has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and for most of his life has been on drugs to control his manic energy. When he was 19, Pederson began to experience seizures, and to reduce their likelihood he avoids caffeine, alcohol and stress. As a result, he is one of the more contemplative members of the team.
"Sure, the butterflies are going to be setting in the day before the game, but as a team we have to buckle down, keep our cool, and tone down our egos," he says. "This has to be a team effort. We can't forget why we're going to the World Games."
Teammate Knill pumps his fist. Knill pumps his fist at every mention of the World Games. "I think about it all the time, yes," he says, rubbing his chin with barely contained excitement.
On Thursday, Knill, Pederson and the rest of the team will begin the trip to Raleigh to join 7,000 athletes with mental disabilities from all 50 states and more than 150 countries to compete in what organizers are calling the largest sporting event on the planet.
It will kick off Saturday with opening ceremonies featuring President Clinton, Michael Jordan and Grant Hill.
"It will bring new meaning to the term `bringing the house down,' " Pederson said.
CAPTION: Away Boys's Lance Dashnaw (left) is a Special Olympics participant who isn't disabled. Above are Coach Frank Dashnaw, assistant Stevie Waleisky.
CAPTION: Lorton Boyz's Curtis Tompkins (3) is safe at second, where Away Boy Chris Knill awaits. The Away Boys will compete in the 10th Special Olympics World Games in Raleigh, N.C., which will begin Saturday.
CAPTION: "It will bring new meaning to the term `bringing the house down,' " Scott Pederson says of the World Games, with opening ceremonies featuring President Clinton, Michael Jordan and Grant Hill.