More than 200 athletes gathered Saturday at the track at John McConnell Stadium Conway High School for the 2018 Special Olympics Track & Field competition.

Conway Human Development Center Superintendent Sarah Murphy said Special Olympics events give the center's residents a means of expressing themselves while allowing them to take part in physical activity.

"We could not be more proud of our athletes and coaches," Murphy said. "SOAR is an amazing program which allows our athletes to shine. Their smiles speak loudly."

Two hundred and fifteen athletes from across Area 17, which encompasses Faulkner, Pope, Conway, Perry and Van Buren counties, rallied Saturday for the Special Olympics of Arkansas (SOAR) competition.

Christina Wiabel, an athlete from the Van Buren County Special School District, said she had a lot of fun at Saturday's competition.

Wiabel, who competed in Shot Put and the 400-meter walk, said that participating in SOAR allows here to get out and compete while also building new relationships with other athletes.

Kace Leavell, a local, 28-year-old athlete, who placed second int he 100-meter run, helped open Saturday's event by singing the National Anthem.

Singing the National Anthem prior to the day's events was an honor for Leavell, he said.

"Music has been a passion of mine ever since I was a little boy," he said. "It was a tremendous honor for me [to sing Saturday], and I'm really thankful God has blessed me with such a beautiful gift."

Leavell said he wanted to remind other athletes to always strive toward what makes them happy and to never give up on their dreams.

"The best advice to give an athlete is that if their pursing their dreams or to be successful is to never give up on [those] dreams," he said. "Always keep your head up."

Local law enforcement — Conway Police Department and Faulkner County Sheriff's Office — were also onsite to cheer on the athletes competing in the 2018 SOAR Track & Field events.

"We enjoy the opportunity to come out here and spend time with the athletes," CPD Lt. Gene Hodges said Saturday.

Officer Dellwyn Elkins said these types of events allow law enforcement to build relationships with the public. He said he enjoyed getting out and spending time with the athletes Saturday as Conway officers and FCSO deputies handed out awards.

"It's stuff like this that makes the harder stuff easier to deal with," he said.

Athletes from across Area 17 including Independent Living Services, Conway Human Development Center, Compass Academy, Action Services, BOST of Russellville, Friendship Community Care as well as the Dover, Vilonia, Conway, Greenbrier, Perryville, Shirley, Van Buren County and South Side Bee Branch school districts participated in Saturday's competition. Two individuals from Fort Smith and Pope County also participated in Saturday's competition.

Libby Holbrock, who helps manage the games at the Area 17 SOAR competitions, said each event is designed to allow an even competition across the board for all athletes.

Coaches will send in how each athlete performs in their division and heats will be designed so that athletes are evenly placed against each other, she said.

"Athletes that are in the same heat are within 15 percent [performance wise] of each other so that there's an even competition," Holbrock said. "There are lower heats and higher heats. Lower performing athletes will have even competition and no one competes against themselves ... we don't want anyone to stand on the podium by themselves."

Holbrock said each athlete is given either a ribbon or a medal after they compete, "because in Special Olympics, everyone wins."

Also during Saturday's event, CHDC Special Olympics coaches Todd Garrett and James Winnen were recognized as Special Olympics volunteers of the year. An Area 17 organizer, Brenda Dowdy and her family, were also recognized Saturday as the Special Olympics Family of the Year.

Dowdy's daughter, Sandy, is also an athlete who participated in Saturday's competition.

Dowdy said she was "surprised and honored" to receive the recognition, noting her family spends a lot of hours volunteering for SOAR.