Encouraging Words Today – July 25, 2010
“DISABILITIES” OR “DIFFERING ABILITIES”?
by Lucinda Secrest McDowell
In the early 1980’s I was a new mom taking night classes at the University of Washington on how to advocate for my special needs son. Learning that Justin was, at age 9, eligible for Special Olympics, we enrolled him in track and field.
Little did I know how much that decision would totally change his life.
In his first competition I waited with open arms at the finish line as a “Hugger” (a designated S.O. position until recent years). I will never forget the joy on his face at finishing that race — perhaps the first time in his life he had been cheered by crowds! I still keep that photograph as a reminder that the little boy who once needed daily physical therapy is now a world-class athlete, in large part due to Special Olympics.
Today I gathered with other families, dignitaries, volunteers and athletes at the amazing University of Nebraska Tennis Center and watched Justin receive a well-earned gold medal (men’s doubles) and silver medal (men’s singles) in the 2010 National Special Olympics.
To say we’ve both come a long way is definitely an understatement.
Yes, our son was born 35 years ago with intellectual disabilities (that’s the current term, though beware, it changes often). But I prefer to use “differing abilities” to describe these folk and believe me, if you had been with me this week I think you’d agree.
At the largest USA Sport Event this year over 3000 athletes competed in about 15 different sports, aided by thousands of coaches and volunteers. Where else would you see opponents hug each other at the conclusion of competition? At every tennis match each athlete shook hands with every single ball volunteer and USTA official no matter what the outcome. They are just thrilled to be here competing in sports they love, wearing uniforms, making new friends, staying in university dorms, trading state pins, and being cheered and welcomed by the finest hosts of all in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I love being with these athletes and I cheer for everyone, certainly not only my son or even just Team Connecticut. Truly, they are all winners just by being here —- overcoming the naysayers in life and sometimes beating the medical or educational or vocational odds. And tears came to my eyes as the ball folks ran up to Justin to autograph their ‘game ball’ with his name!
The other night Mike and I attended a parents’ reception and were applauded as we walked through the door (before you get the wrong idea, let me assure you that every parent was applauded, not just the McDowells…) I was so moved that someone was actually recognizing the part of families in the lives of these special athletes and I have especially enjoyed getting to know other families here.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver loved her sister Rosemary who also had “differing abilities”. But Eunice had a vision of a different world where such people would be brought out of the background and offered a place on the playing field. Thus, in 1968 she started Special Olympics, an international organization of 3 million athletes in 181 countries by the time of her death last year.
In 1981 Eunice Kennedy Shriver inspired the athletes: “What you are winning by your courage is far greater than any game. You are winning life itself and in so doing, you give to others a most precious prize…faith in the unlimited possibilities of the human spirit.”
My son, Justin, beamed at the awards ceremony today but, more importantly, he beamed at every single teammate’s tennis match which he made sure to attend no matter how hot or tired he was, “I need to cheer and support them.”
Special Olympics has opened many doors for Justin as he has competed locally, nationally and internationally on numerous occasions, winning medals not only in tennis, but also floor hockey, softball, basketball, aquatics and track/field. Life lessons in perseverance, commitment, training, good sportsmanship, flexibility, traveling and teamwork have helped to make him the man he is today.
His three younger siblings have literally grown up living and working with people from all backgrounds knowing that each is created uniquely in the image of God — “differing abilities”. At the parents’ reception this week we were told to look to the athletes’ siblings to help carry on this great movement. I was reminded of a conversation a few months ago when I asked my daughter, Fiona, what she wanted for her 30th birthday. Her answer? “I’m asking for 30 people to each donate $30 to Special Olympics and I will match those gifts.” Gulp. As it turned out, several thousand dollars was raised through her efforts.
This week in Nebraska at the Special Olympics was a tonic for my soul as I traded in professional deadlines and presentations in the hurried Northeast for savoring moments, whooping and cheering loudly, and ‘going with the flow’ amidst the prairies and positive people of Mid-America. You might think a focus on gratitude would be primarily to thank God for all I’ve been given as I look around at others. But actually, my gratitude is more for these athletes like my son Justin, who have taken their differing ability, pushed themselves to meet their potential and then offered it up to a waiting world. I only wish every self-serving spoiled celebrity (sports and otherwise) could spend such a week in this environment. Perhaps there would be a lot less whining and grandstanding.
Closing ceremonies are tonight and I know I shall return home with a full heart and hope for a bright future for all the new friends I’ve made. I’m grateful to Special Olympics Connecticut for this amazing opportunity and to the gracious people of Lincoln, Nebraska for opening their hearts to us all in such a serving way.
Now life goes on. Perhaps the Special Olympics oath says it best:
“Let me win.
But if I cannot win,
let me be brave in the attempt.”
Under the mercy, Cindy
©2010 Lucinda Secrest McDowell