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AREA ATHLETES PREPARE FOR SPECIAL OLYMPICS

Gray, cloudy skies and steady rain didn't dampen the spirits of coaches, fans and hundreds of special athletes preparing themselves Saturday for the state-wide Special Olympics, to be held in June at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island.

About 400 Special Olympians from Western New York competed in volleyball, basketball and aquatic sports in Canisius College's Koessler Center.

"We have fun," said Scott James, 29, manager of the Lakers basketball team -- the Lakers of Chautauqua County, that is. "We play against some good teams."

James has played on or managed Special Olympics teams for 20 years.

So has 30-year-old Bill Kinney, the Lakers' point guard.

Kinney's favorite National Basketball Association team is the Chicago Bulls.

His best shot is the three-pointer, and he admitted to often drawing fouls purposely to get to the free-throw line.

In addition to basketball, Kinney competes in softball and hockey at the Special Olympics.

"I'm a regular athlete," he said. "I like the competition. We can play at our level."

Sheila Banks of West Seneca says that principle has helped her daughter, Monica, 19, who has fetal alcohol syndrome.

"To look at her, you can't readily discern her disability," Banks explained. "Still, it's hard for Monica to make friends."

Her daughter, she said, tried sports in high school, but stopped participating when "things didn't work out."

A year ago, however, a church member invited her to swim on her Special Olympics team. At last year's state-wide competition, Monica Banks won two first place ribbons and a third place.

These days, her mother said, she also competes with the swim team at Erie Community College South in Orchard Park.

"She likes competing with Special Olympics because she feels like she fits in," Sheila Banks said, waving to her daughter down at the pool. "She's always wanted to be one of the gang, and this is the first goal she's had in awhile. That's a big thing to her. It gives her a social life."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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