A parade of nations featuring at least 25 different countries kicked off the 2013 World Dwarf Games in East Lansing Saturday. The opening ceremonies began at 8 a.m., early enough to accommodate a full day of competition on the track around Ralph Young Field.
Little people of all ages -- even as young as three years old -- had the chance to compete in Olympic field events and track events of various distances. But regardless of age, participants say they were happy to be able to competing against people their size.
"I was always the shorter one," said Tim Murray, 26, an American athlete competing in his fourth World Dwarf Games. "I was always smaller than everybody, so I was always getting beat up on and whatnot. So I came here and I'm able to step up and compete on a fair level I guess."
It was one of the first times that nine-year-old Liz Hedger had realistic competition.
"Basically when I swim it's just a race against myself," she said.
Her father Brian says he has trained her to think about beating her own times, rather than her opponents who are naturally faster and stronger. He didn't need to provide the same instruction Saturday.
"It's big for people to be able to get out here and show that you're no different than anyone else," he said. "You're just smaller. That's it. You can just go out there and try your hardest."
Being among people of similar stature and with similar experiences is what makes the World Dwarf Games more than a sporting event. In fact, many athletes say the competitions sometimes take a back seat to the event's more core values.
"It reminds you that you're not alone," said Blaze Foster, 23, who traveled from Pittsburgh for his first games. "You have support. There are people with dwarfism who want to compete in athletics at any age. It's a great experience. You can learn a lot of stuff on and off the field."
In fact, said USA Track Coach Judi Brown Clarke, most of the memorable experiences, particularly for the youngest participants, come outside of competition.
"The wonderful thing about having young people is they get to see role models and interact with people all over the world," she said. "It's just a phenomenal way to show young people this pipeline of being empowered by sport.
"You're getting a chance to be exposed to people your age that are from all these different countries. You can't measure how wonderful that experience will really be."
The friendly experience is what Liz Hedger says she's liked most of all so far. When asked her goals for the week, winning a gold medal fell second to making friends.
"It's all about friendship and stuff," she said. "It's not really about competing and getting all mean and stuff, it's more of just having fun."
The World Dwarf Games officially began in 1993 in Chicago and have been held every four years since. The Dwarf Athletic Association of America was formed after the 1984 International Disabled Games in East Lansing. As such, the Michigan State University can be considered the birthplace of competitive, dwarf-only athletics.
The World Dwarf Games continue through Aug. 10. The events are free and open to the public. A link to a full schedule can be found below.