A COUNTY athlete who has lost four-and-a-half stone in the last three years is to represent Great Britain at the Special Olympics European Summer Games in September.
Gary Starkey, from Hoarwithy, will be competing in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the event in Antwerp in Belgium despite only taking up running four years ago.
"His journey to Antwerp starts with a reception at the Belgian Embassy in London, followed by a trip with the British team on Eurostar to Brussels for the opening ceremony," said Starkey's mum Tracey.
"After that, Gary will relocate to Antwerp, where the athletic events are taking place.
"Gary is quite competitive, but he realises that if he can't win, just like it states in the Special Olympics' athletics oath, he will be brace in the attempt and will always acknowledge and celebrate not only his victories, but also the achievements of his fellow athletes."
Gary, who has an intellectual disability, only showed an an interest in the Special Olympics when he watched regional news reports from the Leicester Games in 2009.
He then persuaded his dad Tom to contact the organisers to see if he could join and take part.
The family were pointed in the direction of the Special Olympics group in Worcestershire which met at Bromsgrove Leisure Centre.
But, Gary still had to bide his time due to the group being oversubscribed, but eventually joined in 2010.
"Right from the beginning Gary was motivated to succeed," said Tracey.
"Although the club met on a Thursday, Gary always had his kit ready to go on a Tuesday.
"He joined in with everything and always tried his best.
"When he started at the Special Olympics' Worcestershire base, he was a size XL and had problems with his balance.
"His running helped in both areas, although in his first season, he fell over a couple of times just before he reached the finishing tape.
"On both occasions, he was helped by his fellow competitors and finished the race a little bruised but with a smile on his face."
Starkey was later awarded the Clubman of the Year Trophy and would go to train at Hay Hot Footers in Hay-on-Wye.
His supporter worker Alan McArlde accompanied him during his races and the duo completed the Reading half marathon last year.
At his point, Starkey's confidence was soaring and he was selected for the West Midlands Special Olympics athletic squad at the Special Olympic Games in Bath last autumn.
"Gary enjoyed being a team member so much and gained confidence in staying with the team at Bath University's campus," said Tracey.
"He also, when seeing so many athletes, officials, volunteers and families, began to realise, just how bug the Special Olympic movement really is. At the competition, Gary won his fist national medals in the 100m and 4x100m relay."
Starkey later competed in the Liverpool half marathon on his own after McArdle fell ill.
"A year ago, Gary would just not have had the confidence or the fitness to even attempt this," said Tracey.
"After Liverpool, Gary wanted to build on his fitness and run another half marathon.
"This time, he decided to stay closer to home and competed in the Hereford half marathon, helping raise much needed funds for St Michael's Hospice.
"Gary's family is so proud of him and all his achievements."