Special Olympians from Mexico and Fiji celebrated their arrival to the United States Wednesday afternoon with a picnic lunch on the beach followed by a tour of the Back Bay Science Center.
Newport Beach is among several Southern California cities playing the role of host town. After several days of rest and activities, 136 Olympians from Mexico and 10 from Fiji, will travel to Los Angeles, where they will participate in the Special Olympics World Games. The games begin Saturday and last through Aug. 2.
For some of the athletes, whose ages range from 11 to 35, the trip to Newport marks the first time they have flown in an airplane — or have even traveled outside of their home countries.
While more than 10 hours of travel Tuesday left the athletes exhausted, they said they were excited to begin exploring Newport Beach.
“I’m happy we’re finally here,” Griselda Sandoval, an assistant delegation liaison from Mexico, said through a translator. “We’ve prepared for a whole year to be here and participate in the Games.”
After a lunch of hot dogs, hamburgers, fruit and corn on the cob at Newport Dunes Wednesday afternoon, the athletes and their coaches visited the Back Bay Science Center to learn about the native plants and marine life found along Newport Bay.
The Fijian athletes reluctantly dunked their hands into the outdoor touch tank, whipping their hands out of the cold water quickly as soon as their fingers touched the squishy sea stars sitting at the bottom of the tub.
With wide eyes and grins, they slowly put their hands back into the tank as a center employee explained the feeding habits of sea stars and spiny California lobster.
Steve Bender, chairman of the Newport Beach Host Town Committee, said the group selected activities that would be new and educational for the guest athletes.
“The Back Bay was easy to identify as a place they should visit,” he said. “I call it the jewel of Newport Beach.”
On Thursday, the Olympians will sail around Newport Harbor and have a picnic lunch on the Balboa Peninsula.
Since many of the visitors haven’t experienced the ocean, Bender thought a tour of the harbor would be an instant hit.
Once the games begin in Los Angeles, athletes from Mexico will participate in track and field, basketball, bowling, boccie ball, swimming, soccer, gymnastics, softball, tennis and roller skating competitions in the world Games.
The Fijian athletes, who have never participated in the world Games before, will compete in boccie ball and track and field events.
Bishwa Sidal, the head of the delegation for the Fijian athletes, said he hopes to grow the program and include more athletes in the next several years.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to participate in games at this level,” he said. “Everyone is looking forward to it.”