Don't be surprised if you see Rashawn Young and Wallace Gamble practicing their riding skills all over the Lowcountry. The two young men aren't just horsing around; they're training for the Special Olympics World Summer Games.
Young, 20, and Wallace, 19, are two of 10 Special Olympics athletes who will represent the United States in the equestrian competition June 27 through July 3 in Athens, Greece.
Young, of Hilton Head Island, and Gamble, of Bluffton, have participated in Special Olympics for as long as they can remember. Over the years, they have played tennis and bocce. They've bowled. They've run track and field. The international organization provides year-round sports training and athletic competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The athletes have ridden horses for several years through Special Olympics, which pays for them to participate in Heroes on Horseback, according to Special Olympics Area 8 co-director Cherie Taylor.
The nonprofit therapeutic riding program provides equine-assisted activities to Lowcountry residents with physical, mental or emotional disabilities.
"The first thing we did with these two was say, 'This is a horse,'<2009>" Area 8 co-director Kathy Cramer said about Young and Wallace when they first began riding in elementary school. "And now they're going to Greece because they're that good at riding."
Heroes on Horseback program director Peggi Noon has worked with Young and Gamble for the past three years.
Over that time, they have both won gold medals in equestrian events -- at the 2008 and 2010 state Special Olympics competitions. They also took home gold medals at the international tennis games March 14-16 on Hilton Head.
To qualify for the international games, athletes are required to win a gold medal at a state Special Olympics competition. Athletes are also chosen based on how they work with others, if they display good sportsmanship and how well they've done traveling to competitions.
"It's lways who's the best because there's a lot more to Special Olympics than winning," Cramer said. "It's that they're building good character, they're around other people, they're playing the game well."
The two young men returned March 31 from San Diego, where they trained with a national Special Olympics equestrian coach. Cramer said they did a great job and Young was chosen to be captain of the U.S. equestrian team in Greece.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Noon said the equestrian community has stepped up to support the two athletes, who have gotten free riding lessons at various stables, including Palmetto Bluff, Oldfield, Moss Creek and Rose Hill Plantation, over the past year.
"Not just Heroes on Horseback and Special Olympics are excited about this opportunity, but the whole community really is," Noon said. "They realize this is the chance of a lifetime."
Cramer said Hilton Head Island High School and Bluffton High School have raised money to help the athletes get to Greece.
Heroes on Horseback executive director Robert Lee even drove them to Columbia and brought them back home before and after their recent trip to San Diego.
"Our community does so much," Cramer said, citing the contributions of the schools, Special Olympics, Programs for Exceptional People and Children's Relief Fund. "I just think we do a great job with our special needs population."