Just look for the guy with the gray hair and gold medals.
Thats how longtime followers of Special Olympics competitions across West Virginia have come to know Ronnie Miller over the years.
Ronnie is one of 700 athletes across the state competing in the Special Olympics West Virginia Summer Games this Friday through Sunday (June 4-6) at West Virginia University. The theme of this years Games isGo the Distance,which is pretty fitting, Ronnie-watchers say, when you look at his record as a competitor.
After all, the Brooke County athlete with the salt-and-pepper hair has garnered more gold than Fort Knox in his nearly two decades as a Special Olympian.
More often than not, its Ronnie who roars across the finish line first in the track and field events at the Summer Games. He excels in the relays, where that fine dance of speed and endurance always has the final say on whether or not youll be wearing a gold or bronze medal when your name booms out over the public address system.
During winter basketball tournaments, Ronnie has been known to melt the snow off the roof of a Northern Panhandle gym or two. If he doesnt score 20 points-plus, he says, it just isnt a good day.
Hell be 19 days shy of his 40 th birthday when he takes the track for his first race during the 2004 Games, but the Follansbee native isnt quite ready for the rocking chair yet, he says.
Thats because he likes the camaraderie of the Games just as much as the competition.
I just like running,he said.I like seeing my friends.
Every Olympian comes with a standard issue support group, in the form of family, friends and Special Olympics volunteers, but Ronnie just may have a little more than most.
And thats because of two buddies back home, Bill Furioli and John Daurora. The duo, while simply being modest about the whole thing, have made Ronnie who he isboth as an athlete and a person.
Well, for starters, hes a good guy,said Furioli, who coaches the Brooke County team.But hes also a gifted athlete and a pure competitor. The only thing now is just telling him to slow down. Hes getting to be 40 and he just cant go like he did. Im just glad we got him into this thing (Special Olympics). Its given him a real direction.
Furioli gets just as much direction out of Special Olympics as Ronnie and the other athletes he coaches.
Nineteen years ago, he was sitting his living room recliner, depressed and listless. A massive heart attack knocked him off his steel mill job, leaving a once hard-working husband and father with suddenly too much time on his hands.
I told my wife, �€~Im going nuts. I gotta do something,Furioli remembered.I was starting to wonder if anything was gonna come along.
Something didin the form of a phone call from one of his friends.
Brooke Countys Special Olympics basketball team was playing that night, and Furiolis friend asked for a favor.
Could he come out and fill in as a coach?
I said sure. It was just gonna be for one night. That one night turned into 20 years.
Furioli has since made two trips overseas, accompanying his athletes to international competitions. And his association with West Virginia Special Olympics also includes his wife and three grown daughters.
My wife has been in it with me since that first day, and my girls grew up with it,he said.
Genuine friendships with the athletes were also grown, and Furioli really found that out a few years ago when he was again facing cardiac problems.
I had to have bypass surgery,he said.I was in the hospital. A lot our athletes were worried. Theyd call my room at 3 in the morning. �€~You sure youre okay, Coach?I had to laugh. �€~Im fine, really. Im getting better. Ill see you guys in two weeks for track practice.I was really touched by that.
Daurora was touched by the sight of Ronnie in his grocery store when the two got to know each other five years ago.
In the age of the mega-grocery chains, Follansbee remains the home ofJohnnys Market,a genuine Mom-and-Pop grocery store owned and operated by Daurora. Ronnie took to hanging out in the market, just to have a place to go.
One day he came in and you could tell he was hungry,Daurora said.So we gave him some food.
Daurora was all good-natured gruff that day, he remembered.
It was, �€~Hey, if youre gonna eat, you gotta work.So we started him stocking shelves. When you have a job, you have purpose. One thing led to another.
Daurora would eventually become Ronnies legal guardian, setting him up in his own apartment in Follansbee and helping him manage his utility bills and other household expenses.
Ronnie is a paid employee of the market, and he also makes money doing painting and other odd jobs around Follansbee, Daurora said.
He knows everybody on the hill. Hes always working. That cuts into his Special Olympics training, but hes not going to give that up.
Not that he didnt think about it a couple of years ago, Daurora recalled with a chuckle.He thought he wanted to quit. I said, �€~Are you sure you wanna do that? Ronnie, youre a good athlete. Just stay with it for a while.
Ronnie did, and last year he won the West Virginia Special Olympics Sportsmanship Awardbecause he always cheers his opponents and is gracious in victory.
But while he is a good sport,victorystill remains his watch-word for the Games, he said.
You know me. Im coming down there to win. Lots of medals, man. Lots of medals. Im ready.