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Breaking Down Barriers

Kadena Air Base, Japan

Special-needs athletes and family members walk through a cheering crowd during the Kadena Special Olympics Nov. 4, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The KSO is sponsored by the Friends of Kadena Special Olympics in partnership with the 18th Wing, Okinawa Prefectural Government, Okinawa City, Kadena Town, Chatan Town and all U.S. military services on island. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

Kadena Air Base, Japan

Participants race toward the finish line during the 50 meter dash at the Kadena Special Olympics, Nov. 4, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The KSO was established in 1999 and has become an annual tradition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica H. Smith)

Kadena Air Base, Japan

Kota, a Kadena Special Olympics athlete, receives greetings and cheers from event volunteers during the athlete arrival event Nov. 4, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The KSO is a one-day sporting, art and entertainment event with more than 880 athletes and artists participating in a day of competition, music and special recognition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

Kadena Air Base, Japan

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Case A. Cunningham, 18th Wing commander, presents medals to athletes during the 2017 Kadena Special Olympics, Nov. 4, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The KSO is sponsored by the Friends of Kadena Special Olympics in partnership with the 18th Wing, Okinawa Prefectural Government, Okinawa City, Kadena Town, Chatan Town and all U.S. military services on island. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica H. Smith)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Despite the impeding rain, athletes, volunteers and spectators gathered at Kadena Air Base, Japan, to be a part of the 18th annual Kadena Special Olympics, Nov. 4, 2017.

The event, first established in 1999 was created by the commander at the time, to break down barriers and bring athletes, families and volunteers from all over Okinawa together as one team.

The KSO consists of athletes from 29 schools and 28 special-needs workshops as well as volunteers from both the American and Japanese communities on the island. The event has grown from a mere few hundred athletes to nearly 1,000 participating in this year’s competitions – exponentially increasing in size after almost two decades.

The event is made up of many different athletic competitions such as tennis, softball, basketball, soccer and multiple track runs – from a 100 meter dash all the way to a relay.

Before events begin the athletes are paired with a “buddy.” A buddy is a volunteer who helps and encourages the special-needs athletes while they participate in their many different competitions. Aside from the buddies, many volunteer to act as interpreters to aid in the language barrier.

While many are participating in and cheering on the games, others are putting on a show. Many groups come to perform their talents during KSO and provide entertainment to the athletes and spectators alike.

The KSO is the largest community outreach of the year in the Pacific theater, but what some may find more impressive than that is the environment created by the games – one of understanding and acceptance for community members with physical or intellectual disabilities.

This event inspires acts of kindness, courage and team spirit for all involved – fostering friendships and building memories between Okinawan and American neighbors, but most notably, provides an opportunity for all communities involved to stand together in support of people with special needs.