To get to the 10th Special Olympics World Sailing Competition, you had to round the bend at Two Guys auto shop on Three Notch Road and keep going, past Ye Olde Restaurant and the buggy-crossing sign. On the map, Route 5 looks like a twisting, lonesome drive. On a steamy day last week, it was actually much lovelier, flanked by ancient trees but not much else.
As you cross a short and narrow bridge, St. Mary's College of Maryland is on the right, nestled among lush greenery with the sailboat-dotted St. Mary's River as a backdrop.
To the special sailors who have gathered in St. Mary's City to test the brackish waters, this rustic place seems a million miles from their native Martinique, Spain, Britain or Guadaloupe. But to athlete Russell Bucci, St. Mary's County is home.
"Hey, Barney, we finished second, baby!" Bucci yells to his coach, retired oral surgeon Barney Hathaway. The sailor's dark hair is plastered to his head, and his clothes are still wet from the day's final races. He slaps his coach on the shoulder and runs off to find his parents, brother, sister, nieces and nephews who showed up to cheer him on.
With the day's second-place ranking, Bucci, 29, from Hollywood, Md., will take home a World Games silver medal. Other regional athletes also fared well. Kirsten Stone, 23, of Annandale, and Drew White, 29, of Rockville, each took home silver medals. Tom Bayne, 40, from Ridge, won the gold in his division. Carla Shipp, 30, of Rockville, won a gold medal in her division.
In Special Olympics sailing, athletes with mental and physical disabilities are matched up with nondisabled partners and grouped in divisions based on their ability to navigate a sailboat. To qualify for competition, they must swim 30 yards with a life jacket and must have been seizure-free for a year. If they win a medal at a state-level regatta, their name goes into a hat. There is a drawing for the five coveted spots for Maryland on the U.S. team.
Russell Bucci almost didn't get to compete in his home county. His name didn't come up in the original drawing, but another athlete dropped out and Bucci stepped in.
His tireless mother, Mary Lu Bucci, and her husband, Jim, a retired printer, ate lunch with their son under the huge red-and-white striped tent where athletes, their families and about 75 volunteers gathered after the races to compare stories and strategies. They looked tired and a little pink from the sunshine that crept through the shade trees. Geographically, this race was just a short distance from their home. But it had taken so many miles to get here.
"Not only is this what they've been training for, it's socialization," said Mary Lu Bucci. "It's friendship. It's somewhere for our children to relax and have fun."
Mary Lu Bucci and her husband are die-hard Special Olympics volunteers. She is the St. Mary's county director for the program and coaches track and field. Jim Bucci coaches softball and soccer. The couple's other three children coach softball and skiing. They were all there waiting with hugs and high-fives when Russell and his partner, Shawn Stanley, steered the 14-foot Hobie catamaran to shore.
"Russell, you ought to be proud, man," Raymond Bucci, 36, told his brother under the tent. Russell Bucci grinned, wiped his glasses and left to look for friends. Jim Bucci watched him leave, then shook his head.
"You really have to be there to experience how much it means to the kids," he said. "I'm so glad it was here."
The remote St. Mary's venue was chosen in a last-minute change, said Lynn Flanigan, director of competition for the sailing event. The other Special Olympics events were held in Raleigh, N.C., but the weather conditions were not conducive to sailing, so the athletes hit the road to St. Mary's, where the sailing team is ranked first in the nation. The 18 Hobie boats are on loan from individual families, and the college's racing team donated use of its 25 18-foot Flying Juniors.
The winds were a breezy 15 mph and the river got choppy only on the first day of the competition, Flanigan said. Sailing, she explained, requires a balance between the sailor and the force of the wind and the waves. It's not only the mechanics of operating a 14- or 16-foot vessel but also the examination of weather conditions and determining which way the wind blows. The direction could change any minute.
"The challenge is to harness the natural power of the wind," said Flanigan, who has watched fledgling sailors blossom in her 16 years with the Maryland Special Olympics program. "I like the wind on my face. [The Special Olympians] will probably tell you they like the swimming best. I think some of them capsize just to go swimming."
Removed from all the hoopla of the North Carolina site, great pains have been taken to ensure competitors still experience the excitement and spirit of the games. This tiny Maryland town has been transformed into a miniature Olympic village. Banners welcome the athletes, and families have been treated to an endless stream of activities: a luau, a baseball game and plenty of food. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics founder and honorary chairwoman, dropped by to show her skills in a celebrity regatta and pose for photos with the families.
Around Shriver's thin neck hung a silver coin given to her by a Special Olympics team from Ecuador. Read the inscription, she urged. Etched into the silver were the words from a speech she gave at a Special Olympics long ago: "As we hope for the best in them, hope is reborn for us."
"When [the athletes] started out in Chicago, they weren't even allowed into the swimming pool," she said, walking down the dock to her boat. "Look how far they've come."
White, one of the competitors from Rockville, said the Olympics have improved more than his sailing savvy. He is enrolled in a work program and recently moved out of his mother's home for the first time to live independently. He credits a lot of his self-confidence to the Special Olympics, particularly sailing. The skills he has learned are applicable to life.
"It's about being a team player and doing the best I can to help my skipper," White said, his strikingly blue eyes and his pale face getting serious. "It's exciting, it's liberating and I'm going to feel very proud to go back to my work program and tell everyone what I've been doing while I was away."
He pauses and takes a gulp of his red Powerade. He leans back in his folding chair and smiles.
"You don't only sail with your brain," he explained. "You also sail with your heart."
CAPTION: Shawn Stanley, left, gets a high-five from Russell Bucci after their silver-medal finish in the Special Olympics world sailing contest.
CAPTION: The sailing races were moved at the eleventh hour to St. Mary's College.
CAPTION: A flock of 18-foot Flying Junior boats sets sail from the starting line. The boats, on loan from the St. Mary's College racing team, were used by teams in the Special Olympics World Sailing Competition, which featured competitors from around the world and St. Mary's County.
CAPTION: Above, 23-year-old Kirsten Stone, left, of Annandale, and Allen Flanigan, of Alexandria, maneuver a catamaran on the St. Mary's River. They won a silver medal in their division. At left, Russell Bucci, 29, right, of Hollywood, Md., receives a hug from his father, Jim Bucci, after his silver-medal finish.