SEARCY, Ark. – The Arkansas Special Olympics kicked off Thursday morning, drawing a thousand athletes from across the state to a two-day event at Harding University.

Athletes trained all year to compete in 6 different events: powerlifting, bocce, swimming, tennis, track and field, and flag football, with the chance to win medals and travel to a national competition in Orlando.

Powerlifter Karly Pratchard has competed in the Special Olympics 5 times, training twice a week to build the strength needed to win.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Pratchard said. “We do deadlifts and benches, and then the next day we do like leg stuff.”

Thursday, Pratchard competed in three sub-events; deadlifting, bench presses, and weighted squats – events carefully monitored by coach Casie Dawson. Dawson and Pratchard will both move from the Arkansas event to the USA games in Orlando, just 23 days away.

“It’s an incredible thing to witness,” Dawson said of the competition. “They show up every day with a smile on their face cheering each other on, cheering themselves on. That inspires me to do better.”

Pratchard says the best part is the community, with the designated team “cheerleader” gaining friends and teammates for life every time she competes.

“This is my family,” she said. “I’ve been part of this family for 5 or 6 years and won’t have it any other way.”

The 2022 Arkansas Special Olympics will conclude Friday, May 13.