EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Riley Windeler stepped on to the stand, bowed his head and smiled from ear-to-ear as a bronze medal was placed around his neck.
The 23-year-old university student from Horsefly, British Columbia, was proud of having captained the Canadian volleyball team to a third-place finish.
But for Windeler and hundreds of athletes competing this week at the World Dwarf Games on the campus of Michigan State University, the Games are as much about inclusion and fellowship as they are athletics and competition.
“It’s amazing. You don’t get to be around little people” in this way, said Windeler, who led his team to a 25-3, 25-15 victory over a team comprised of athletes from various nations. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
The Games, which conclude Saturday with the basketball finals at the Breslin Center followed by closing ceremonies, are held every four years. This year’s sixth installment is the largest ever and includes more than 400 athletes — slightly more than two-thirds are male — from 23 nations and every U.S. state taking part.
By comparison the 2009 Games in Belfast featured 250 athletes from 12 countries.
Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4-foot-10 or shorter. Most enjoy normal intelligence, normal life spans, and reasonably good health, according to Little People of America, Inc., a national non-profit organization that provides support and information to people of short stature and their families.
Known as dwarfs, little people or short-statured, those with dwarfism are sometimes misunderstood, and in extreme cases, ridiculed by members of the public.
That’s why the importance of the weeklong event in the dwarf community can’t be overstated, said Len Sawisch, who co-founded the Dwarf Athletic Association of America and is considered a pioneer in the world of dwarf athletics.
“Most of us grow up being the only little person in our school or our community,” Sawisch said. “To have the opportunity to be with other dwarf athletes” means a lot.
Just ask Cullen Adams, who repeated as the 100-meter dash champion, winning in 14.02 seconds, making him the world’s fastest dwarf athlete.
“Being part of the LP, the little people community, it definitely is an extended family — the camaraderie. It’s just so natural. And that’s the beauty of it,” said Adams, a 34-year-old Internet marketer from Sydney who took time out from competing to root on his fellow Aussies during Thursday’s table tennis matches.
Because inclusion is the name of the game, people of all ages and abilities were encouraged to compete in the 14 medal sports this week in East Lansing.
The Games are open to dwarf athletes and are organized by five age divisions: — Futures (6 and younger), Junior A (7-11), Junior B (12-15), Open (any age) and Masters (35 and older) — as well as by dwarfism classification, including Classes 1, 2 and 3, based upon body proportions.
The Games “make sure that kids with dwarfism could be here” so they can “be around adult role models,” Sawisch said. “Because 80 percent of little people are born to average-size parents. And chances are they don’t know anything about the dwarf community or what the opportunities are.”
That was the case with Kevin Cekanor, whose father, Mike, serves as chef de mission, or manager, of the 200-athlete U.S. team at the Games.
Mike Cekanor and his wife have two boys. Kevin, 16, is their youngest and has a kind of dwarfism called achondroplasia, a genetic condition that results in disproportionately short arms and legs. He started competing in dwarf athletics in 2006, and “we got hooked,” Mike Cekanor said.
“He plays sports with his average-statured friends at home, but there’s nothing like having the opportunity to compete with his LP friends, his short-statured friends here during the Games,” he said of Kevin, who proudly posted on Twitter a photo of himself with Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo at the Games.
Through Thursday’s events, the U.S. team led the medal count, followed by Great Britain, Australia and Canada, although a number of sports remained undecided, including floor hockey, powerlifting and basketball.
It hasn’t been announced where the 2017 World Dwarf Games will be held, but it doesn’t matter to Clinton Brown.
He’ll be there.
“This is the only place where little people can play other little people, so it becomes a family,” said Brown of Long Island, who coached a New York-based team to gold in volleyball. “The same people come every year, and we add new faces.
“It’s really wonderful.”