We weren’t just watching sports when the Special Olympics were broadcast last week from the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles. What we were seeing was the best of the human spirit set free through an investment in people. That’s why the 2015 relationship between Special Olympics and Microsoft is so positive. It helps to strengthen people and the communities they live in by providing technology tools and infrastructure to help enhance the health monitoring and training of Special Olympics athletes. Microsoft also helps by using their great influence to spread the undeniably unique and powerful spirit of the Special Olympics around the world.
But, it was the people investment that stood out most for me over the past week. I’m not just referring to the amazing performances of athletes like Olivia Quigley who earned a gold medal in the 100 meter dash even while battling Stage 4 breast cancer. It was also the volunteers, the coaches and the family members who I could see had been helping in a very real way to support the human potential of the athletes and to help them be their best selves.
After all isn’t that what all of us need whether we have disabilities or not? I’m sure all of us can think back to a pivotal moment in our life when our perspective changed about what we could accomplish. For some it comes from the family members, coaches and community sponsored programs like Little League Baseball. But, it can also come from our teachers and if you have a disability the opportunity can come in the form of an assistive, accessible technology that makes your participation possible.
Regardless, when an investment is made in our human potential it produces powerful things like courage, self-confidence, acceptance and increased ability in all people whether they become an Olympic athlete, a student or an active member of their community. When we invest in the potential of one another we create possibilities that literally help to change our realities.
Here’s how it happened for me. I grew up in the small town of High River, Alberta, Canada. I was born with Spina Bifida and like most little boys in Canada I grew up with a great love for the sport of hockey. That’s why I identified so strongly with the story I heard this past week about the passion Jamaal Charles had for sport has when he started as a Special Olympics athlete before going on to an all-star high school, college and professional career as a star running back with the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL. I also was drawn to the enthusiasm in the story of Special Olympic athlete Jackie Barrett like “The Newfoundland Moose” who joyfully competes as a powerlifter. I say joyfully competes for a reason because like many people with disabilities and Special Olympians I know very well what it feels like to be excluded.
I remember well the confusion and anxiety I felt as a youngster when I thought I couldn’t do what I saw others around me doing so effortlessly. The first time I remember feeling this way I was learning to walk with my leg braces and forearm crutches after recovering from the last of eight surgeries I had before I was four years old. I can remember holding myself up by my arms to look out the window so I could watch the neighborhood kids outside our house playing street hockey. My brother Jae was out there with them and quite often I’d see him looking back at the window at me as he played. I was only maybe five or six then and Jae was about nine or ten years old. I don’t remember ever talking with him about how I felt but I do remember wondering why my body didn’t do the things I wanted it to do and I wondered what my future would be like. I felt sad, isolated, fragile and inconvenienced and I didn’t know what to do about it. Jae must have realized this because he soon took action.
This was in the early 1980’s and in a way I suppose we created our own Project Unify right out there on the street when my brother somehow convinced the neighborhood kids to let me play with them. I was ecstatic, shocked and a bit scared all at the same time but I knew I’d be playing with someone I trusted and liked so I didn’t even consider the option of staying inside. I just grabbed my crutches and followed my brother out the door and down the ramp my parents and their friends had built on the side of our house to the game on the street below.
They told me what team I was on and that I should go stand in front of the net and deflect the tennis ball using my crutch to try and score. I dutifully did what I was told and soon tennis balls were flying my way. We played that way for years and I still love and cherish every minute of those days not just because of street hockey but because that one action my brother took started me off on a whole childhood full of active participation in all the things I enjoyed. Next, I was playing little league baseball, participating in my gym classes at school and even attempting to skate while leaning over and pushing a chair on the ice at the local community hockey school. I had experienced just like Special Olympians do that people can choose to overcome their fear of difference and that they have the capability to understand and to adapt in bridging the gaps that can sometimes lie between us. Soon my classmates and members of my community saw more about what had in common, to see me as an equal and began to care more about me as a human being which only unlocked more opportunities for me to participate and for them to give back. I can’t even begin to explain the difference that made in my life.
About fifteen years later I had started my first year of college when I happened to be watching highlights from the Paralympics in the middle of the night on our local sports network. That’s when I realized there was this adaptive sport called sledge hockey and that there was a team in Calgary where I lived filled with other athletes with and without disabilities that I could play with on ice. A twenty year career in adaptive sport has followed and it’s all because my family, friends, community members, teachers and coaches chose to unlock the power of my human spirit in the same way they do for every other child. Like me, as it does for Special Olympic athletes and all people, it helped to build my hope and confidence that I truly could do whatever I wanted.
Athletes of all kinds whether they become Olympians, Paralympians or Special Olympians are just people chasing dreams and doing what they love. You can see the joy in their faces and the humanity we all share as they go through the competitive experience. Win or lose, it’s the passion to participate and the hunger and need we all have to belong. It’s what we all want as human beings and it’s what unites us. Nothing demonstrates that more uniquely and powerfully than the Special Olympics.