Special Olympics Holds Lessons, and Inspiration, for All of Us

Jun 24, 2014, 2:30 AM, Posted by


Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

—Special Olympics motto

The other day I cheered myself hoarse during a swim relay for a team from Maryland that put their all into the race. In fact, the whole viewing crowd cheered on this team. When they finished, the athletes were jubilant, hugging each other and their opponents, thrilled by their performance in this national event. It didn’t seem to bother them much that they finished last.

The 2014 USA Games for the Special Olympics, the world’s largest organization for people with intellectual disabilities, was held in New Jersey June 14-21. Some 3,500 children and adults from all 50 states competed in 16 different sports, and the vast majority took tremendous pleasure in the pure joy of athletics. Sure, plenty were fiercely competitive, but they were also happy and proud to have the opportunity to compete to the best of their ability.

That was pretty inspirational to the 110 staff members from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who volunteered at the Special Olympics.

The theme of this year’s event was “Inclusion,” a theme we also need to keep in mind as the Foundation works to build a Culture of Health for all Americans, no matter the obstacles they face. As RWJF Director Anne Weiss notes, “like all of us, the athletes were diverse individuals—some were outgoing and friendly, others were withdrawn. Some were physically vigorous and others were limited in their ability to walk, see, or speak. But this huge Special Olympics effort makes it possible for all of the athletes, their families, coaches, and volunteers not only to be physically active, but to make social connections, to learn new skills and resilience.  It was amazing!”

It was also a reminder that sport and physical fitness is something we can all pursue in some form, no matter how limited our abilities. That’s not the same message I get when I watch the traditional Summer and Winter Olympics from the comfort of my couch. I marvel at the physical perfection on display, but I never think that I too could be out there running or jumping or swimming. Ideally, however, sport should not be exclusionary, and the Special Olympics is prima facie evidence that it doesn’t have to be.

For example, the Special Olympics promotes “unified sports,” which bring together athletes of different abilities to play on the same team. RWJF VP for Communications Robin Hogen became an instant fan of the concept after watching a soccer game between the unified Pennsylvania and Wisconsin teams. “It is a wonderful way to teach the qualities of empathy, respect and awareness to able-bodied athletes who play on a par with physically challenged athletes,” says Robin. “They learn it is more important to play your best and lose than it is to care only about winning.”

The goalie on the Pennsylvania team, Dadly Thenor, moved from Haiti to Pennsylvania in 2006 and required numerous operations to correct a birth defect that left his legs deformed. He now walks independently with the aid of a walker, which Dadly puts aside when he tends goal. “Dadly is my new hero,” says Robin. “While his team lost to Wyoming 2-0, Dadly won the hearts of all who watched the game. There were no losers on that field of play.”

Every RWJF volunteer had similar reactions. CFO Peggi Einhorn was struck by the many shapes and sizes of the athletes, and how athletic ability was independent of physical handicaps. She recalled a swimmer with cerebral palsy—he could not use one arm, and one leg was turned inward.  “But he still swam fast and well and he did his flip turns with ease and grace, even if he twisted and pushed off the wall with just one leg,” says Peggi. “He clearly loved swimming, and participating.”

RWJF program financial analysts Sharleen Rajput and Jan Mihalow got to hear directly from the athletes as they worked the booth, selling shirts, hats and pins. Jan says that whenever she congratulated one of the contestants, they would proudly share their accomplishments:  “Hey, did you see me?  I did a really good job.  I hit a double today.”  Or “Hey, I was awesome. I got a hit and had a save.“ And then there was the thrill of victory. Senior Writer/Producer Jeff Meade recalls a 13-year-old swimmer named Sarah who won her meet, and reminded him about it several times. “It was all I could to keep her from running a victory lap,” says Jeff. “She was so thrilled, and pleased with herself.”

Some RWJF staffers had a very special connection to the event. Jes Carney, digital marketing and analytics director at the Foundation, has an older brother who is a Special Olympian. “The Special Olympics, without a doubt, helps people with intellectual disabilities thrive in ways that were not thought possible,” Jes says. She teaches painting to older adults with severe disabilities, and notes that any time these individuals are included in activities, be it sports, music, art, etc., they thrive.

The final word goes to Communications Associate Renee Woodside, who says the best part of her day of volunteering “was getting to see my husband’s cousin Henry swim.” He went home with three gold medals and a silver.