I’ve been involved with Special Olympics for over a decade. Although anyone can benefit from sports— building self-confidence and a sense of belonging while improving overall health and fitness, strength and coordination—for individuals with disabilities, there are added dimensions.
Changing a Life
When I first started coaching, one of the newest members of our basketball team had just relocated to Hawaii from New York after his parents died. He was very shy. He’d never really played basketball as part of a team, but from even the beginning warm ups, I saw potential in his incredible speed. Realizing how fast he could move, we made him point guard. That’s when we discovered he couldn’t dribble! He’d carry the ball with two hands and couldn’t throw high enough to reach the basket. During his first season, he probably led the league in turnovers.
Practice, encouragement and personal grit will enable anyone to improve, but when someone is presented with an opportunity for the first time, the results can be amazing. His teammates were so supportive that I’d have to remind them to stop clapping each time he made progress. A couple seasons later, he scored 36 points in our championship playoff!
Outside of practice, several players and I often play pickup games with other people. Sometimes, team members are shy about playing with other people, but once they start running, they realize the game is the same, regardless of the players. Meeting new people has been a lot of fun for many of the athletes, and the other players really look forward to the games with these special athletes. Many of them have even become close friends.
Let me share, too, a bit about what Special Olympics has done for me. I became involved with the organization while in law school. At that time, everything was about study. I was leading a very stationary lifestyle and felt I wasn’t really contributing much to my community. I answered a flyer asking for volunteer coaches and immediately realized how much fun it was, something to look forward to each week. It provided a much-needed break from the intensity of the classroom, enabled me to make an impact and allowed me to return to my studies reinvigorated. My team became my family, and just as I cheered them on at competitions, they were right there at my graduation, cheering louder than anyone.
I volunteer for a lot of organizations these days, but no other group has impressed me in the same way as Special Olympics, where the team concept extends to the families who support these athletes. They are intensely proud of their kids, applauding each accomplishment, often going to great lengths to ensure that their loved ones can practice and compete.
Participating in sports is a natural way to fight stereotypes. It’s a stage for goal-setting, personal determination and the realization that temporary failure can be a foundation for success. And it’s just plain fun.