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story.lead_photo.caption Brett Nelson, playing for a team from Lee's Summit, tosses a bocce ball Friday during the State Outdoor Games at Blair Oaks Athletic Complex. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

Joy came to Jefferson City on Friday morning and is staying for the weekend.

The annual Special Olympics Missouri State Outdoor Games, held at venues throughout Jefferson City and surrounding areas this year, kicked off when athletes began bocce and tennis competitions Friday morning.

With more than 1,100 athletes and coaches — and their supporters — in town for the competition, the games are being held in Jefferson City for the fifth consecutive year. Every four years, SOMO awards the games to a city based on their bids.

More than 450 athletes from across the state had signed up for the bocce tournament and about 60 were on hand for the tennis matches, Mandy Ballinger, SOMO director of communications, said.

"The Jefferson City community is really working for us," Ballinger said. "The facilities fit our needs, and they have great volunteers."

Bocce was played at Blair Oaks High School in Wardsville, while tennis was played at the Yvonne Walker Hoard Tennis Courts at Lincoln University for the first time. In the past, tennis had been played at Helias Catholic High School.

The four courts at the tennis complex were divided among standard courts and "short courts," which are used for novice players.

Ballinger explained there were several levels of tennis athletes at the courts. Some were just picking up the game — practicing simple skills, such as throwing the ball into the air for a serve, striking the ball or bouncing the ball with their rackets. Those players used an enlarged, softer ball than the standard tennis ball.

And when they felt they had those skills mastered, they began playing on the short courts, where they also used the larger, softer balls.

Those who perform well on the short court can graduate to regulation tennis courts, Ballinger said.

They can play singles or doubles. Or they can play "unified" sports, which means they are partnered with someone who doesn't have an intellectual disability.

Wanda Blattel and her son Luke Blattel, whom she coaches in tennis, traveled from the Cape Girardeau area for the games.

Wanda said she and Luke are both excited for the Outdoor Games because Luke doesn't have a lot of people to compete with back home.

"I came on and began coaching to help another coach," Wanda said. "You just get addicted to it, once you get into it."

Besides coaching Luke in tennis, she coaches for a Special Olympics softball team. That team has players who are at a lower level than Luke, so he helps her with the coaching.

Luke, who is 35, said he began playing softball in 2011 and, after learning the sport, went to the very next World Games in Greece.

On his softball team, Luke said, he acts as a sort of coach on the field.

"I'm the guy that directs the team what they need to do and which base they need to throw to," he said.

Last year, Luke and his tennis doubles partner, Simon Caldwell, 31, of Savannah, went to Seattle for the Special Olympics U.S.A. Games, where they won gold medals. Luke also won a silver in singles play.

Caldwell said he enjoys tennis and has competed in Jefferson City several times. He also was looking forward to Sunday's flag football competitions.

Although games began Friday morning, the opening ceremony was held Friday evening at the Binder Park Softball Complex.

Softball games are scheduled for all day today, as are demonstrations of disc golf.

Also today, many athletes will visit the newly opened Training for Life Campus off Christy Drive for the first time.

SOMO leaders hope the new facility not only will inspire and promote its current athletes, but will offer — through camps and programs — opportunities for other people with intellectual disabilities to join the ranks of athletes.

There are about 15,500 Special Olympics athletes in Missouri. But there are also more than 106,000 people with intellectual disabilities in the state who have not participated in Special Olympics.

Health screenings are to be offered for athletes free of charge at the campus this afternoon.

The Training for Life campus will also host a dance and bingo this evening.

Flag football at Helias Catholic High School and golf at Oak Hills Golf Course will be played Sunday.

Wanda Blattel said Luke really looks forward to the Outdoor Games, not only because he enjoys the competition (and winning medals), but because he can visit with old friends.

"It doesn't matter who wins or loses," she said. "They come together as friends."

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