About a month ago Special Olympics New Mexico sent sixteen athletes to Princeton, New Jersey to participate in the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. Over 3500 athletes from all 50 states competed in sixteen different sports. Unlike the neglect and abuse these athletes face most of the time, New Jersey did a great job of honoring them with deafening cheers and thunderous applause. As one reporter put it “The athletes’ performances were inspiring, and they changed the hearts of all who watched them – one perception at a time.”
The Games themselves were amazing, but as always is the case, there were moments on smaller stages that revealed similar transformational outcomes. Team New Mexico arrived at the ABQ Sunport early in the morning eager to begin our journey to Princeton. While waiting to board the plane, I noticed the curious faces of those with whom we would be flying. Their expressions were unsure.
Once we all got seated, the pilot announced that Special Olympics New Mexico was on their way to compete in the USA Games. Our athletes cheered, and then as we bolted down the run-way – they screamed. My guess was the majority of them had never flown before. The higher the plane climbed and the more their stomachs flip-flopped – almost on cue, Team New Mexico suddenly threw their arms above their heads like they were riding a roller coaster. It was the best ice-breaker possible. Everyone broke into laughter and for the next three hours, passengers with and without disabilities began to talk to each other.
When we landed, I can’t tell you how many “It was nice flying with you” and “Good luck” hand shakes and best wishes were extended to our athletes. Within the confines of that plane – as our athletes connected with those around them before the Games even began – hearts changed one perception at a time.