Competition takes a lot out of a person.

Athletes need healthy diets, enough water and plenty of sleep.

That's a lot to manage for more than 3,000 athletes, but it's what Brett Broek signed up for as 2010 Special Olympics director of participant services.

Food service workers will serve tens of thousands of meals to athletes staying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this week. They'll pay attention to food variety and the restrictions some athletes have because of medical conditions including diabetes and celiac disease, which requires gluten-free meals.

The theme: Keep it healthy and balanced.

The word getting back to Broek so far:

"They have been thrilled with the meals. All in all, it's been a very smooth process."

Ron Burke, director of UNL dining services, said his staff of about 170 is accustomed to serving lots of meals. They do it all year for students.

The differences, however, are twofold.

"I've never seen such clean plates in all of my life," he said. "They're eating everything."

He's also never seen such an appreciative group.

"They're fun. They're really, really fun," he said. "Our staff is just having a ball with all of the athletes."

After breakfast, workers are liable to get hugs and compliments: "Those pancakes were just awesome."

The logistics of feeding the group include off-site meals for those competing at 14 venues who can't return to dorms for lunch.

Burke said workers come in at 4 a.m. to start the box lunches.

On Monday, that meant more than 1,600 meals prepared by 10 a.m. so they could be delivered in refrigerated trucks.

UPS and Cash-Wa Distributing are ensuring the meals get where they need to go, and the National Guard pitches in, too.

Lincoln companies including Runza, Arby's, Planet Sub, daVinci's and Valentino's donated meals or money to help feed volunteers. Pepsi supplies water and pop, and Arctic Glacier Ice donates the ice.

Along with the food, Broek is in charge of housing the athletes.

It's the largest single group housed on campus at any one time, said UNL conference services manager Tony Rathgeber.

"It's what we do and we're pretty used to it," he said.

Over the course of the summer, the university houses 16,000 people for camps and conferences. Rathgeber said 43 camps or conferences usually scheduled during this two-week period had to change dates. But even the ones that had to find other places to gather have said they'll be back next year, he said.

Special Olympics athletes are grouped into seven UNL residence halls, and officials and staff are staying at the apartment-style Village.

State delegations stay together so roommates know each other.

Rathgeber said the games have had a positive effect on his staff, too, especially students working at the residence hall front desks. For some, the camaraderie and friendship and the positive traits the athletes exhibit have been a life-changing experience, he said.

"It's infectious. And it's wearing off on my staff."

Reach JoAnne Young at jyoung@journalstar.com or 402-473-7228.