Once again, the Naval Academy joined forces with Maryland Special Olympics over the weekend, hosting their largest Special Olympics event yet.
More than 300 athletes from Mid-Atlantic region showed up Saturday and Sunday to compete in swimming, bocce, track and field, and other events on the academy grounds.
"I love being out here every year," said Daniel Morales, 16, of Herndon, Virginia. "This is one of my favorite track meets."
And while they love the competition, participants say the games are about something deeper.
"It's more about like family, friendship (and) bonding with other athletes from other counties and other states," said Michael Heup, 36, of Annapolis.
Heup, a 13-year veteran of the Special Olympics, said the organizers are trying to inspire others in the special needs community to join them.
"The important thing is to try and get more athletes involved in our events and have them come out and just see what it's like to watch us run and say, 'I want to do this' or 'I want to do that,'" he said.
Morales sees the games as a way to connect with others, but also as an opportunity for those with special needs to grow as individuals.
"It's fun -- you get to meet new friends, you get to do things that you've never tried before and at the end you'll feel really proud of yourself," he said.
It was a special experience for the midshipmen who volunteered as well.
More than 300 midshipmen helped with the event as part of the latest initiative by the Midshipmen Action Group, the academy's community service program.
"It's one of the largest undertakings I've ever done and it's been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had," said Midshipman 2nd Class Michael Ross, the project leader in charge of staging the event.
The academy has been working with the Special Olympics for more than 40 years.
"The partnership with the Naval Academy is just tremendous," said Gregg Meade, the Anne Arundel County director for Special Olympics. "(Both) what they do and how they interact with the athletes."
That interaction has had an impact on the future naval officers, too.
"Their passion for life, their excitement, their joy, it's incredible," said Midshipmen 2nd Class David Larkin, who will be taking over leadership of the Midshipmen Action Group in the fall. "When you surround yourself with happy people, you become a happier person."
For plebes like Renee Loucks, seeing what the Special Olympians have accomplished helps her as she goes through the grind of her freshman year at the academy.
"It just kind of puts everything in perspective because everyone has their own struggles," she said.