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Arkansas athletes gather for start of Special Olympics

One thousand athletes are competing in this year's Arkansas Special Olympics. While competition is fun, leaders are hoping to also instill other lessons as well.

SEARCY, Ark. — This summer-like heat has crushed previous records. That's not the only record being broken though, so are the hundreds of Arkansas athletes competing in this year's Special Olympics. 

"I was nervous when I got up this morning, but I quickly just made that disappear," said Travis Benson, an athlete competing in the Bocce matchup.

This will make Benson's seventh year competing, but he still likes to keep his skills sharp.

"We practice, like probably two or three times in a month before coming," Benson said.

You can see the results of that practice when you look at the medal around his neck.

For him, it's a reward for those long hours he's spent honing his skills.

Thursday's matches are just half of the two day competition.

There's also another aspect to the competition. A big part of it comes down to health and wellness, according to competing athlete Sharon Johnson.

"In here are healthy athletes where we get different things done, like eyesight, teeth, [and] hearing," Johnson said.

Special Olympics Arkansas allows thousands of people with intellectual disabilities to really get the full experience while competing.

While the competition is fun, leaders are not just focusing on the accomplishments on the track or under the weights, but also making sure people are truly in good shape.

"It's very important to just take care of yourself, your team, body wise, everything," Johnson said.

That message is being pushed by the volunteers too. Megan Slayton, with the Van Buren Police Department, is out there for the second time, volunteering with the Special Olympics.

"A feeling of just true joy, [and] to be able to work side by side with them," Slayton said.

She's lending a hand in cheering on all of those star athletes, as well as presenting awards.

She also participated in the law enforcement torch run Wednesday. 

For her, this community, built of hundreds of supporters, is her reason for coming back.

"With COVID and everything like that, it was a little more difficult the last couple of years. But we're here this year, and we're making it work," Slayton said. 

Thursday was the first day of two day competition.

The matches will resume Friday at 9:30 a.m. at Harding University.