How do you measure courage? That is a question which can be answered by the men and women who joyfully participate in Special Olympics.
On the athletic field, as in life, individuals with intellectual challenges perform at the highest level they are capable of. That is the same measure of success we all aim for, and because they make that effort we are inspired by their achievements. Of course every human being is unique with particular strengths and weaknesses. That is why when a person participates in Special Olympics they not only have the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities but also to overcome what, may have been in the past, a particular source of frustration or something that was believed to be a limitation for them.
By breaking through that barrier they develop courage, confidence and self-esteem. The realization that a person can do more than they thought they were capable of, is at the heart of being a Special Olympic athlete. But although achievement is a worthy goal it is just as important to simply make the effort. To be brave enough to “try” is more than most people can claim. Too many of us hide in our comfort zones and refuse to push ourselves, however, those who participate in Special Olympics take on new challenges and endeavors. For them it is not only the exhilaration of competition but also the sense of fulfillment that sweeps over them as they make new friends and interact with their peers. It means developing a sense of belonging and camaraderie. It means enjoying the entire experience no matter what the athletic results may be.
Of course one of the most important aspects of Special Olympics is that each individual is valued for who they are. There are no judgments. There are no expectations. There are no restrictions imposed. There is only acceptance. Each athlete is treated as an equal member of the human family, without regard to any specific challenges they may face. They are simply a human being – nothing more or less. They are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. They are appreciated as a person – not for what they can or cannot do.
Special Olympics encourages values that can be used in other areas of life as well. It teaches the importance of perseverance, the joy of participation and the desire to interact with others. It allows individuals to not only test their physical strength and endurance but also to push themselves emotionally and intellectually as they attempt to perform to the best of their abilities. It allows them to experience the satisfaction and pride that results from giving maximum effort. The sense of accomplishment that they rightfully feel when they are awarded their medals is both heart warming and inspiring.
Unfortunately, society has a tendency to focus solely on things the athletes struggle with. We are all familiar with the labels and categorizations that are used to define our friends and loved ones. We are aware of the cold hard designations and descriptions that are attached to flesh and blood human beings. We have all experienced the frustration of being told by an “expert” that someone in our life cannot do this or that before they have even been allowed to try. Special Olympics can play an important role in taking the focus off of the negative and placing it on the positive. For both the athlete and their family it can be an enriching experience that opens up new perspectives on what possibilities might lie ahead. New skills are learned and new confidence is gained. A competitor can come away from an event and feel even more positive about themselves.
There is so much negativity in life – so much to be concerned about – so much that is troubling – that it is a pleasure for everyone involved with this wonderful organization to spend their time and energy in activities where EVERYONE wins. There are very few areas of life where each and every person finds complete acceptance and appreciation. This special athletic competition stands out as a beacon to those who simply want to be equal members of society. It provides them with a platform to put forth their best effort, and it shows the world that they have the same hopes, dreams and desires as everyone else.
But by far the greatest thing about Special Olympics is the fact that it is so much FUN! Athletes get to spend time with their old friends even as they make new ones. They are focused and fully engaged in the effort to do their best. The volunteers who work with them and support them add joy and compassion to the experience. The self-confidence and sense of accomplishment each competitor feels is thrilling and exciting. Everyone involved has a terrific time and discovers new things about themselves and others. The whole world benefits from all the positive outcomes that are generated by these athletic competitions. Lessons that we all need to learn as human beings are on display during each event. All we have to do is open our hearts and our minds to realize that those who compete for the sheer joy of it are showing us the purity and beauty of human nature.
Because it is the perfect combination of courage, dedication and fun, Special Olympics allows each individual to experience the profound pride and the unrestrained jubilance of being themselves.