Bobby Duncan, a 20-year-old Marana resident, is in the midst of an opportunity of his lifetime.

Duncan is one of 33 athletes representing Arizona at the Special Olympics National Games through Saturday in Lincoln, Neb. Four of the 33 Arizona athletes are from greater Tucson.

"I'm excited to go to Lincoln, Nebraska and get on an airplane because I like to fly," said Duncan, who has been diagnosed with autism. Duncan qualified for nationals by taking a gold in the state competition for the five-event pentathlon — the 100-meter dash, 400-meters, shot put, long jump and high jump.

The Special Olympics movement began in 1968 when founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities. At the first games, she announced "The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact. The fact that exceptional children … can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth."

Duncan's mother Olivia Wells has watched her son grow since he began competing in Special Olympics six years ago. "It's been a great social outlet. He's naturally more introverted, but doing Special Olympics has given him social skills and experiences."

Special Olympics have also given Duncan an opportunity to excel, to feel talented and truly special. "He's really proud of it, said Wells. "We go out for to ice cream after his games and he wears all of his medals. A lot of kids with disabilities don't have that."

At nationals, Duncan is competing in the pentathlon and the 4x100 relay. His 100-meter state time of 12.62 seconds is competitive.

"None of us really expected it," said Wells. "It was his teacher that first introduced that he's really fast. The high school track team wanted him." Duncan graduated from Mountain View High School in 2008, and now works at Fry's.

"I liked running and exercising," said Duncan, who also participates in bowling, basketball and golf.

Duncan wins his medals in track and field. "We've got a lot of golds," said Wells. "I've lost count. They're in a box, on the wall, there must be 25 or more."

"I didn't take the gold the first time," said Duncan. "It was new, facing all the people." Duncan then imitated himself running while staring up at the bleachers. When he won, "It felt great!"

Special Olympics Arizona has sponsors for its national athletes, but the competitors were still required to raise $1,000. Duncan participated in special fundraising events like Cop on Top, and had donations from friends and family.

If athletes place in Nationals, they have a chance to attend Worlds. "I'm concerned I'd have to get shots for those other places," said Duncan, hesitant to attend that event if the opportunity arises.

"What's your favorite part of track events?" Wells asked her son.

"I like the winning part," he responded.

Holly Thompson, Special Olympics Arizona Tucson representative, said the program "improves their self-esteem. Just like any other athlete, they like to do well and improve. Special Olympics gives them that opportunity."

Viewers of Special Olympic events may be pleasantly surprised by what they find. Among an audience that has endured more struggles and trials than most in ensuring the best life for their children, not a sad face is present. "We cheer for every kid, ours, theirs. It's great, very inspiring. Everyone should go to an event and support the Special Olympics," said Wells.

Athletes learn about sportsmanship, teamwork and friendship. "One thing that's really neat is that they cheer each other on from other schools. How often do you see that?" said Wells.

"It's a basic human need to be recognized," said Wells. Special Olympics gives its athletes that chance, allows them to do something for themselves, and helps them feel good about themselves.

Duncan is ready to show Lincoln what he's got. "We're hot! Hot! Hot!" he said, repeating the Team Arizona 2010 slogan. "I'm gonna light that match and smoke them!"

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