Kylie MacFarland smiled wide as she pumped her paddle back and forth, the crowd cheering as she propelled her kayak toward the finish of a 200-meter competition at James Island County Park.
As she glided across the finish, MacFarland whirled about to cheer on her competitor, James Bethea, chugging through the water behind her. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause as Bethea's boat sailed by the buoy marking the race's end.
"Yeah!" MacFarland shouted, pumping a fist above her head. "Good job, James! We did it!"
The pair were among five Special Olympians who competed Saturday in the second annual Charleston Invitational Kayak Competition, hosted by Special Olympics South Carolina. Though MacFarland crossed the finish line first, as in all other races, all who competed were considered winners.
The competition featured teams from Charleston and Columbia in 200-meter and 500-meter races. In all but one race, the special-needs athletes were paired with non-disabled partners in their kayaks.
Participants practiced weekly for eight to 10 weeks to prepare for the competition, said Lucy Swaffield, regional program director for Special Olympics SC.
Andrea Bailey of Columbia said her son, Andrew, 14, had never been in a kayak before signing up for the competition. He and his father practiced for hours to prepare. "It's been such a wonderful experience for him," she said.
In the opening ceremonies, the group paid tribute to Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday in Massachusetts. "Without her, we would not be here today," Swaffield said.
This was MacFarland's second year in the competition and she enjoyed every minute of it. "It's fun and good exercise," the 30-year-old Mount Pleasant resident said. "And I get to be with all my friends."
Bethea's mother, Amy Bethea of Mount Pleasant, said her 22-year-old son had resisted her efforts to get him on the water. But given the chance to compete, he took right to it.
"This has been great for him," she said. "And the beauty of this is, everyone is so supportive. They pull for all of the athletes. In the end, they really are all winners."