GREENFIELD – Watching their granddaughter Gracie participate in the Special Olympics on Monday was a dream come true for Robert and Mary Pritchett, who were among the many fans who came out to watch the 90-minute event at the Greenfield-Central High School football stadium.

The unseasonably cool temperatures and light rain couldn’t dampen the spirits for the Knightstown couple, who sat beneath an umbrella, bundled up in jackets and blankets, watching their 12-year-old granddaughter compete alongside fellow athletes with special needs.

Gracie’s story is one of strength and determination, which is so often the case with Special Olympics athletes.

Born with Down syndrome and without an esophagus, she spent the first nine months of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. She underwent open heart surgery at just 7 months old, one of many surgeries throughout her lifetime.

“For her to survive the first year was touch and go, so to be able to see her out here today, it’s just…,” said her grandmother, Mary Pritchett, getting choked up with emotion as the student athletes took to the field Monday.

Her husband Robert giggled with joy when Gracie lined up for a race just a few feet from where her grandparents sat outside the track.

“Go Gracie, go!,” they shouted. “Run, run, run!,” shouted her grandmother as Gracie made her way down the track, supported by two other young girls who were cheering her on to the finish line.

Gracie, a sixth-grader at Greenfield Intermediate School, was among 53 Special Olympians to compete in the event Monday, with support from 131 general education athletes known as Unified Partners.

While Special Olympics events are held during the summer months outside of school, Monday’s competition fell under the organization’s Unified Champion Schools program, which promotes inclusivity by implementing inclusive sports, inclusive youth leadership opportunities and whole school engagement.

Busloads of kids from 10 Greenfield-Central schools came out to cheer on the student athletes, all school-age students ages 8 and up.

The high school’s mascot and cheerleaders were there to welcome the athletes onto the field, where members of the school band played the national anthem as part of the opening ceremonies.

Sara Cummins, executive director of FUSE – or Families United for Support and Education – was there sharing information about her organization with families of children with special needs.

As a parent to both a son and daughter with special needs, Cummins knows how great it feels to see others celebrate their accomplishments.

“I love that there’s so many people here today supporting the athletes,” she said. “I think this is such a special opportunity to support this community.”

The young athletes – dressed in matching orange T-shirts – passed under an arch of blue and gold balloons before emerging out on the track to a round of applause from the crowd.

Some grinned and waved as they spotted parents and friends among the throng of fans, who cheered on the Special Olympians as they competed in a number of modified track and field events.

Despite so many young athletes on the field, the Pritchetts couldn’t take their eyes off of Gracie.

“She’s really a sweetheart,” said her grandfather, as he grinned watching Gracie go at her own pace in a race, clutching a black Crayola marker in one hand.

“She’s always holding onto something. That’s her sensory thing,” said her grandmother, who said Gracie got a set of 100 markers at the start of the school year so she never runs out.

Knowing about things like sensory issues are ways that general education students can get more comfortable with special education students like Gracie, she said.

“Some of their noises and mannerisms can be confusing to other kids, because if you’ve never experienced a kid with special needs, you might not know how to react around them,” said Mary Pritchett.

“You don’t know what you don’t know, which is why I think it’s great to see so many (general education) students here today supporting and getting to know the athletes.”

Special Olympics volunteer Molly Champion, student services coordinator for Greenfield-Central Schools, said this year marked the highest number of student athletes on the field and fans in the stands since the school district starting hosting the games in 2019.

“This is such an inclusive community, which is so important,” she said.