Special Olympics swimmer Clarisa West. [Courtesy photo]

Being “the fastest” is what 28-year old Grace Beh said she likes best about participating in the Special Olympics swim competition. For fellow swimmer Luke Sutton, “beating Grace” is what he enjoys most, he said.

The two athletes bantered back and forth good-naturedly while talking recently about an upcoming aquatics competition that the two typically compete in each year. Sutton, 33, recently crashed his bicycle, and is unsure whether he’ll be able to swim this year.

“I like how we have swimmers of all different skill levels, and we’re all one family on the team,” said Sutton, who typically swims the 100-meter relay, among other events.

Eleven Moab athletes are set to compete in the South East Area Special Olympics aquatics competition on Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center, 374 N. Park Ave. The event starts at 9 a.m. and runs for about two hours. The public is invited to come watch and cheer the athletes on.

Those who qualify at this regional competition will go on to compete at the state level at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 16, and Saturday, Oct. 17. The state competition typically draws more than 200 athletes.

While winning is encouraged, learning good sportsmanship is just as important, said Matt Allen, regional events manager for Special Olympics Utah. A motto of the nonprofit Special Olympics organization is, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver noticed how people with intellectual disabilities were often treated unjustly, and that children with intellectual disabilities had no place to play. She began holding a summer day camp for intellectually disabled young people in her backyard. Her vision eventually grew into the Special Olympics – year-round sports training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Worldwide, more than 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries participate in Special Olympics events each year.

In Moab, Velda Ward is “head of delegation,” meaning that she oversees the coaches for the various sporting events that take place over the course of a year. Bernie and Paula Radcliff coach the swimmers.

Ward, who has volunteered for more than 10 years, said she got involved with Special Olympics because she has worked with people with disabilities for the past 20 years. She coordinates various events, and transports all the athletes to their practices and competitions. Athletes begin practicing eight weeks prior to an event.

“I love seeing them compete,” Ward said. “I get a thrill when they win.”

Another competing athlete that Moab residents might recognize is Jed Taylor, Ward said. Taylor is well-known for his penchant for walking around town, she said. He’ll be competing in the assisted swim.

Saturday’s aquatic event will run similar to a regular high school aquatics event, with timed events in various swim stroke categories, including backstroke, freestyle, butterfly and relay events, Allen said. There will also be two assisted swimmers, and a walking event for those who are unable to swim. The athletes range in ages from 12 to 50.

In addition to the year-round sports training, Special Olympics’ mission is to help disabled people develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, as well as other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

Allen, who volunteered for Special Olympics for six years, said he loves the friendliness and appreciation of the athletes.

“That’s what brings me back – the happiness I get watching the athletes succeed,” Allen said.

Public invited to cheer athletes on during Sept. 26 event

“I like how we have swimmers of all different skill levels, and we’re all one family on the team.”

When: Saturday, Sept. 26, from 9 to 11 a.m.

Where: Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center, 374 N. Park Ave.

Cost: Free

For more information, call 435-231-3679.