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New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan gets a 'high five' from Special Olympic Athlete Charlie Helfrich of Hennicker at a sendoff for the team that will be representing New Hampshire in the Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. (Bruce Preston/Union Leader)

Special Olympians get big send-off


MANCHESTER - Forty New Hampshire athletes competing in the Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey this week are setting a great example for their fellow Granite Staters, Gov. Maggie Hassan told them Saturday morning.

A delegation of athletes, coaches and supporters set out for the games from the Center of New Hampshire in a caravan of minivans. The athletes will compete in eight sports, joining 3,500 athletes from across the nation.

Hassan promised them New Hampshire will be cheering them on. And, she said, "I think if a whole bunch of people who consider themselves able-bodied, whatever that means, followed your example, we would be a much healthier state."

Bonnie Kyle, 27, of Keene will compete in bocce at the games. She said some of her fellow athletes are nervous, but she's not. She's looking forward to "meeting new people and just having fun."

Kyle was wearing a feathered headband in red, white and blue and a banner reading "Miss NH USA Bocce Queen."

Chris Panarese of Manchester, 34, will compete in aquatics. Asked what he looks forward to most, he said, "Making everybody happy. And New Jersey.

"I'm excited to give it my best," he said.

His parents, Joseph and Mary Panarese, will be there to cheer on Panarese and the rest of Team NH. Mary Panarese went to the nationals eight years ago as a coach.

"I think I'm more excited than he is because I know what is going to take place," she said. "It's such a wonderful week."

When Hassan came through the door, she was greeted with the kind of cheers ordinarily reserved for election-night victory celebrations.

The governor moved down the double line of athletes, high-fiving every hand. "Thank you all so much for representing your state so extraordinarily well," she told them.

"It just makes me really proud to be your governor and really proud of each and every one of you."

The rest of New Hampshire feels the same, she said. "Because ... when each and every Granite Stater is strong and healthy and participating fully, it makes the whole state better."

Hassan then proclaimed it Special Olympics Team New Hampshire Day.

Swimmer Eric Lemieux of Claremont gave Hassan a Team New Hampshire shirt. And as the athletes took up the chant, "Put it on!" the governor gamely swapped her navy-blue blazer for the neon-yellow shirt and posed for a team photo.

Lorrie Strand of Chester, Vt., 44, also swims on the Claremont Cool Cats team, but will compete in bowling this week. She was chosen to introduce Hassan and said that "was really awesome." As for what she's most looking forward to this week, she said, "Competition and fun and being with friends."

Eight law enforcement officers volunteered to drive the team to New Jersey, including two state troopers and members of the Nashua, Merrimack, Somersworth and Tilton police departments.

Another driver, Paul Montray of the Merrimack County Sheriff's Department, first participated in the Special Olympics torch run in 1990 and has been volunteering ever since.

"Just to see the looks on the athletes' faces and their smiles," he said. "That's what it's all about."

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