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Kadena Special Olympics allows kids to be heros

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of U.S. Air Force Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, gets a hug from a local Boy Scout after receiving a medal for the 30 meter dash at the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. KSO had over 3,000 athletes and artists attended the event even though it rained. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, gets a hug from a local Boy Scout after receiving a medal for the 30 meter dash at the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. KSO had over 3,000 athletes and artists attended the event even though it rained. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of U.S. Air Force Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, shows off her medal to her sister and Hugger after she participated in the 30 meter dash a the the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is participating in KSO for the first time this year and also participated in the 30 meter dash, and softball throw. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, shows off her medal to her sister and Hugger after she participated in the 30 meter dash a the the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is participating in KSO for the first time this year and also participated in the 30 meter dash, and softball throw. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel poses with her medal at Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is the 7-year-old daughter of the 18th Wing vice commander Col. Brian McDaniel and is participating in KSO for the first time. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel poses with her medal at Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is the 7-year-old daughter of the 18th Wing vice commander Col. Brian McDaniel and is participating in KSO for the first time. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of U.S. Air Force Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, runs the 30 meter dash for her fist event at the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is participating in KSO for the first time this year and also participated in the 30 meter dash, and softball throw. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Marlee McDaniel, daughter of Col. Brain McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, runs the 30 meter dash for her fist event at the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Marlee is participating in KSO for the first time this year and also participated in the 30 meter dash, and softball throw. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers)

Daiko-drummers perform at the Risner Fitness Center during Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Thousands of spectators and regional leaders from Japan and the United States came out to show support for more than 1,500 artists and athletes participating in the 13th Annual KSO Games and Art Show. The event is sponsored by the 18th Wing and the Friends of Kadena Special Olympics in partnership with the Okinawa Prefectural Government, Okinawa City, Kadena Town, Chatan Town and all U.S. military services on island. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Hailey Davis)

Daiko-drummers perform during the Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Thousands of spectators and regional leaders from Japan and the United States showed support for more than 1,500 artists and athletes participating in the 13th Annual KSO Games and Art Show. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Hailey Davis)

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy, 18th Wing commander, receives a hug from a special-needs athlete during the beginning of the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Kadena Special Olympics was established in 2000 by the 18th Wing commander as an avenue to build relations with neighboring communities and local government representatives while providing a meaningful activity for the special needs children and adults.(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Justin Veazie)

Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy, 18th Wing commander, receives a hug from a special-needs athlete during the beginning of the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. Kadena Special Olympics was established in 2000 by the 18th Wing commander as an avenue to build relations with neighboring communities and local government representatives while providing a meaningful activity for the special needs children and adults.(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Justin Veazie)

Shinichi Nakamura, an athlete participating in the the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics arrive as thousands of attendees cheer them on as part of the KSO opening ceremonies on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012.  More than 1,500 artists and athletes participated in a variety of events ranging from 200 and 300 meter races, tennis skills and floor hockey to soccer skills and ground golf during the 13th Annual KSO. This year marks the 13th Annual KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of special-needs individuals while strengthening U.S. - Okinawa relationships. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich)

Shinichi Nakamura, an athlete participating in the the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics, arrives as thousands of attendees cheer them on as part of the KSO opening ceremonies on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. More than 1,500 artists and athletes participated in a variety of events ranging from 200 and 300 meter races, tennis skills and floor hockey to soccer skills and ground golf during the 13th Annual KSO. This year marks the 13th Annual KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of special-needs individuals while strengthening U.S. - Okinawa relationships. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich)

A volunteer high-fives an athlete participating in the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics as they arrive during the KSO opening ceremonies on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. More than 1,500 artists and athletes participated in a variety of events ranging from 200 and 300 meter races, tennis skills and floor hockey to soccer skills and ground golf during the 13th Annual KSO. This year marks the 13th Annual KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of special-needs individuals while strengthening U.S. - Okinawa relationships. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich)

A volunteer high-fives an athlete participating in the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics as they arrive during the KSO opening ceremonies on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. More than 1,500 artists and athletes participated in a variety of events ranging from 200 and 300 meter races, tennis skills and floor hockey to soccer skills and ground golf during the 13th Annual KSO. This year marks the 13th Annual KSO, a sporting event dedicated to enriching the lives of special-needs individuals while strengthening U.S. - Okinawa relationships. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- Thousands of volunteers, supporters and special-needs athletes and artists from all over Japan, came to Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17 to participate in or support the 13th annual Kadena Special Olympics.

"This is an opportunity for the two communities to meet in joint service to the athletes and build a brother and sister hood like the ancient Okinawa proverb that says 'once we meet we are brothers and sisters forever'," said Brig. Gen. Matt Molloy, 18th Wing commander.

After the completion of the opening ceremony, the athletes were able to explore the field with their "hugger" and compete in events such as softball, hockey, basketball, and track and field.

Huggers are service members from around the base who volunteered to help and encourage special-needs athletes both young and old from Okinawa and the U.S. throughout the event.

Even though it began to rain, the Olympians kept high spirits and continued to compete.

For a young, smiling, Marlee McDaniel, daughter of the 18th Wing vice commander, this was the first year of competing in the Kadena Special Olympics.

"This is emotional for us. We've shied away in the past to protect her," said Col. Brain McDaniel, Marlee's dad. "But they say, 'If I can't win, let me be brave.'"

Marlee has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes her to have an extra chromosome, which affects the way the body and brain develop.

"This does not affect my military career," the father said. "We are part of an exceptional family member program and before every (permanent change of duty station) we make sure we have everything we need for Marlee."

The 7 year old loves to swim and run everywhere. She also takes tennis and ballet lessons and during KSO she competed in the 30 meter dash, tennis skills and the softball throw -- even though the rain.

"I think people have a misconception about special needs kids," said Deborah McDaniel, Marlee's mother. "They are just like any other child, and they just want to be part of a group or part of a team. People just need to give them that chance."

Throughout the years, Special Olympic events have given special-needs children a chance to be a part of something with others they can relate to. Beginning in 2000 with approximately 400 athletes and 600 volunteers, as an 18th Wing community goodwill initiative, the event has more than tripled in size and participation and even caught the attention of Dave Lenox, vice president of leadership development and education for the Special Olympics.

"(The KSO) is a really unique model," said Lenox, who traveled to Okinawa to check out the KSO in person. "It's community building at its core, and that's something that the rest of the Special Olympics is just now beginning to make as a priority. That's why I'm here, because it's one of the models we really want to try and replicate around the world."

Kadena Special Olympics brings the Okinawan and military communities together, said Lenox. It helps to build both communities by working together for a common goal: the experience of the athletes.

As Marlee competed in events throughout the day she ran with enthusiasm, interacted with volunteers, athletes and artists with charm and demonstrated the courage to others that may be still too timid to participate in these types of events.

Her father spoke of his daughter proudly, "Marlee has taught us how to be a hero."

(Airman 1st Class Malia Jenkins contributed to this article)

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