Very Special Olympics Athlete Pacheco, Teammates In World Games

Helen Pacheco sings, acts, paints, swims and coaches, and she's a Special Olympics athlete.

Pacheco and her U.S. teammates gathered in Los Angeles recently on their way to China, where they will compete in the Special Olympics 2007 World Summer Games.

"I'm very excited, a little nervous, too," Pacheco said. "I'm going to be meeting a lot of new folks."

"If I come back with at least one gold, one silver and one bronze, I'll be happy. I'm in four aquatic events, so you never know. I'll just try my best. And if I don't come back with anything, that's fine."

The Games, with opening ceremonies scheduled for Tuesday in Shanghai, will draw around 7,500 competitors from some 160 countries. The U.S. delegation consists of 400 athletes.

As the competitors gathered at an airport hotel before embarking, a greeting team of volunteers cheered wildly as each arrived.

The athletes gathered in a ballroom, with the excitement evident in the buzz of cheery conversation and hugs, lots of hugs.

"We're going to work hard and try to bring all the gold home for the United States," said a determined Daniel Griggs, a 34-year-old power lifter from Lincoln, Neb.

Tawny Gray, a 30-year-old from Alberton, Mont., will compete in English jumping.

"I'm looking forward to learning a lot about Chinese culture, and I'll learn to ride some different horses," she said.

While Special Olympics athletes are formally described as having intellectual disabilities, most also have an abundance of gifts, such as an effervescent, contagious enthusiasm and a sincere concern for their teammates and others.

The 45-year-old Pacheco, who lives Santa Monica, is bit of a renaissance woman.

She sings in a band for LA Goal, an organization that focuses on independent living.

Her husband Robert, also a Special Olympics competitor who was in the 1999 World Games in North Carolina, plays the drums.

They met through the program and have been married for 16 years.

Helen has artistic talent, with her painting chosen for the cover of a book, "Disabled Fables," which she pointed out is available in bookstores.

She portrayed Dorothy in an LA Goal production of "Wizard of Oz" and spends long hours at the pool, practicing her events and coaching younger swimmers.

And she works, as a senior clerk for UCLA.

"It's good to keep busy," she said.

Bill Fields, assistant vice president for sport with Special Olympics Southern California, called Helen a "phenomenal individual," and noted that the program even enabled her to meet her future husband.

"She said all that has changed her life," Fields said.

"Through this organization, things like that materialize. We know the negativity that's out there in sports, but this is strictly a win-win, positive situation all the way around."

"This is pure amateur athletic sports."

The personable, gregarious Griggs gushed about the effect the program has had on him.

"It helped me change my life, got me going to where I want to set goals and work hard, to respect others. I've even gotten a sportsmanship award," said Griggs, who works in dining services at the University of Nebraska, and likes to bowl, compete in track and field, and play basketball and softball."

"I go out and make speeches, too," he said of his Special Olympics activities. "And I like to do a lot of stuff to help my friends out, teach my friends sportsmanship. You want to win, but you work hard and, hey, if you lose, be happy with what you did. That's what teamwork is."

Griggs, who said his best bench press is 310 pounds, has one particular goal.

"I want to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. I hope he hears about it," Griggs said of the former champion body builder who is California's governor.

There's a Special Olympics tie there: the organization was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. Her son Timothy P. Shriver is chairman of the organization, and her daughter, Maria, is married to Schwarzenegger.

"Hey, you want to arm wrestle, Arnold?" Griggs said with a chuckle.

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