Interestingly, I have had four conversations this week with people wanting to know how my career in Special Olympics began. Although my first Special Olympics experience happened over twenty years ago – I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was awesome – and it changed me, forever.
At the time, I was coaching women’s basketball at Iowa State University and got a call from the Athletic Director asking if I would welcome 3,000 Special Olympics athletes to our university at the Opening Ceremonies of their State Summer Games. My response showed up in the form of a question – “What is a Special Olympics athlete?” After hearing the answer I recall my “yes” to his invitation including a sense of wonder at the very thought of how this might affect me.
I spent the day of Opening Ceremonies at the track. Although I didn’t know anyone, I felt very much at home with thousands of athletes and bleachers filled with screaming fans. Sport was welcoming all of us. At first glance, it was apparent these athletes faced different challenges than the women I was coaching. I paid close attention to things and saw things I had never seen before. I focused my attention on these athletes of all ages and abilities as they competed with all of their hearts. I gave way to tears watching their families celebrate. It was uplifting – it was pure – it was clearly important.
Opening Ceremonies that night was “high pitched.” There was a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, and by the time I was called to the microphone – my heart was as happy as it had ever been at an athletic event. For the next 10 minutes I shared with those athletes what I had seen while watching them compete. I talked to them about their courage, their effort, and the compassion they showed that day towards each other. I asked them to yell at the top of their lungs “WE ARE ATHLETES” so everyone on campus could hear. I was pretty sure everyone did. And when my time in front of them was over, I knew I had made 3,000 new friends in one fell swoop.
Never mind that the experience not only changed my way of thinking but my entire career path. It’s probably not all that important to those of you who are reading this that I found the world of disability to be something very different than what I thought it was. And it doesn’t really even matter that twenty plus years later, I’m still inviting athletes to scream at the top of their lungs at Opening Ceremonies. Here is what is important – I said “yes” to doing something I had never done before. I went outside my world and got involved in someone elses’. I followed my heart along the way as I sought deeper involvement and the result was meaningful work and making a difference. I’m not any different than you. In the midst of life we are all given opportunities for new beginnings. What we do with them is up to us.