SEATTLE -- Divine Pearl Navalta won her very first race -- by being born just before an historic hurricane struck.
In early September 1992, as Hurricane Iniki roared toward the island of Kauai, Odysses and Dolores Navalta welcomed their new baby girl. She was so small and so very precious that they decided the name Divine Pearl was perfect.
Within days, Iniki would be the most destructive storm to ever strike the Hawaiian Islands, leaving thousands homeless and many without power for months. Meanwhile, the newborn developed complications, and amid the hurricane's devastation, it took weeks to find doctors who could properly tend to their baby.
Perhaps as a result of the unusual events, Navalta developed intellectual disabilities and mild cerebral palsy. Her circumstances did not, however, reduce her determination or the ebullient spirit that is now so contagious that her friends have nicknamed her "The Sparkling Diva."
Monday morning, Navalta lined up to race in the Special Olympics USA Games at the University of Washington. At 5 feet, 1 inch, 105 pounds, the 25-year-old was the smallest competitor in the female heat of the High Performance 100-meter competition.
If she was nervous, it didn't show; she just looked cold on a cloudy, misty morning with the temperature at 55 degrees. For someone from the tropics, who had never been to Seattle, or even on the mainland U.S., it had to feel uncomfortably foreign.
But Navalta burst from the middle of the five-woman field, as if pushed by a powerful trade wind, and sustained her speed to win her heat in a time of 15.30 seconds. The key to her speed? "I practice hard every day and my coaches train me very well," Navalta said.
The win, she said, "makes me feel happy inside."
That happy-inside spirit has seemed infectious in the Puget Sound region since Sunday's Opening Ceremony, in which nearly 40,000 people gathered at Husky Stadium for what was a joyful respite from recent dour news of national divisiveness and social unrest. While smiling and mugging athletes collected on the field to dance and celebrate and make friends, the messages of the presenters carried obvious socio-political overtones.
"The state of Washington has a proud history of inclusivity, tolerance and compassion," said Jay Inslee, governor of Washington.
Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, told the athletes that the "world is looking for leaders who value compassion, who value dignity and respect... You are the ones the world is looking for."
The message of inclusion, particularly, was a prevalent theme at the ceremony. It was delivered to a target-rich audience. So many of the athletes, ranging from age 8 to 74, had to have encountered experiences like those of Navalta, who had felt the sting of bullying, intolerance and marginalization while growing up.
By phone from Kauai, Navalta's father recalled times when she had been bullied and threatened and scorned by insensitive classmates at school. "For a long time, she didn't even want to go to school," he said. "She was afraid."
But Special Olympics became a safe harbor for her. "It's her comfort zone," her father said. "She likes being with those friends. She can be herself, and she loves competing." Having been a sprinter in school himself, Odysses Navalta helps coach his daughter. One of his main points is that a fast start isn't enough, a sprinter has to stay strong through the finish.
His pupil certainly followed that advice on Monday morning.
Even her coach, Tamarine Carvalho, had concerns when Navalta stepped to the line against several runners who were much taller and much more capable of longer strides to gobble up the 100 meters.
"That could be intimidating for anybody," Carvalho said. "But people who see her as so small don't realize how competitive she is."
Because of limited competition on the island, Navalta has to run against boys all the time in practice, Carvalho said. "She's so used to running against boys who are much bigger than she is that this didn't bother her a bit."
Before the race, Carvalho had positioned herself at about the midpoint of the track to videotape the action. "When [Navalta] went by me and she was in the lead, I stopped taping because I got so emotional," Carvalho said. "I started crying."
Everyone around her, she said, was screaming in support of the small, determined woman sprinting away from the pack.
The coach said the cerebral palsy causes Navalta to develop "quite a lot of stiffness in her joints, so we have to do a lot of stretching with her." Navalta also competes in the long jump and the 200 meters. She didn't show any stiffness in her 100-meter race, nor in the long jump later Monday, when she won her flight.
Carvalho said she sees two distinct sides to Navalta. "Outside of competition, she's very girly, very dramatic. She's just naturally outgoing and brings everybody up when they're down with her high energy."
But once she comes to the starting line and the gun goes off?
"She's very aggressive and competitive, maybe the most competitive athlete we have," Carvalho said. "Once she gets set up, she really brings it."
One of Navalta's long-range goals is to qualify for the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in March. "But if I don't, that's okay," she said.
Her experience Monday -- feeling the joy of winning -- is only a part of these Games, though. The second clause of the Special Olympics oath is "... but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
Shortly after the flying, Navalta churned up the 100 meters in a little more than 15 seconds. A number of flights in the 100-meter walk were contested. The first race featured four female competitors, ranging in age from 20 to 52 -- two from Louisiana, and the others from Iowa and southwestern Washington.
Hannah Hotard (Louisiana), Tina Colantuono (Washington), Laura Smith (Iowa) and Kaylan Butler (Louisiana) all had traveled to Seattle to compete, and to be a part of the Special Olympics environment. Hotard won this heat in 46.53 seconds.
Afterward, they all mentioned how much they enjoyed the opportunity to make new friends and spend time with teammates. When asked by an interviewer what they thought about their performances, each used the phrase "very happy." From first place to fourth, they were all "very happy."
When asked whether they felt they had "been brave in the attempt," each grinned broadly and nodded, with two obviously emotional when realizing they had lived up to the oath they had given the day before at the Opening Ceremony.
As Smith said of her Special Olympics experience, "it doesn't matter about your ability, it's how hard you try."
Divine Pearl Navalto summed it nicely after her sprint win.
She seemed the unlikely victor, too tiny, almost frail, to be such a competitive terror. Her long braid was intertwined with a light-blue ribbon, which she said represented the water that surrounds her island; her green racing singlet was stitched up with white thread to shorten the shoulder straps so it didn't hang to her knees.
She had been storm-born and challenged in ways most athletes couldn't imagine. But for 15.30 seconds Monday morning, she was in total control of her world.
Special Olympics, Navalta said, "is something I can be a part of; it's where I make friends, friends I'm very proud of. All of us are a part of this. And that's what makes me happy."