The intellectually disabled athletes who compete in the Special Olympics of Maryland have one key characteristic in common with the hyper-driven young people who train for the U.S. Olympic Team: They are serious about sports, training regularly – and aggressively – with an eye toward victory. One pronounced difference: Special Olympians also train themselves not to fixate on outcome, but to live in the rushing moment of the game, to enjoy active play and camaraderie above all else. Such superb sportsmanship seems to come naturally for most of them.
“They approach the sport to be competitive,” says Jason Schriml, VP of communications for Special Olympics of Maryland. “That all ties in with our motto – ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.’ They’re competing against their cohorts. [We emphasize to athletes:] ‘We’re going to train hard, but in the end there’s often only one winner. You still have the dignity and grace, and still enjoyed the process.’”
This weekend’s three-day competition marks the 42nd Special Olympics in Baltimore – the event was founded in Rockville in 1968. Each summer, athletes grouped by age, gender and ability, typically consisting of participants from 10 to their early 70s, compete in track and field, swimming, bocce, softball and cheerleading.
Held at Towson University, the 2012 summer fest welcomes 1400 athletes (including a number of non-intellectually-disabled volunteers, known as partners, who support the players, and coaches) – participants will occupy three towers of dorms in Towson Center.
“We make a large impression on Towson when we get there,” Schriml says.
Athletes early on select for themselves the particular sport in which they’d like to train to compete in, but not every aspiring player makes it to the Special Olympics.
“They train 10 to 12 weeks, one to three times a week,” Schriml explains. “We hold a competition leading up to this competition, so they have an idea of where they are. They’re chosen [by merit] to represent their county. Eighteen counties compete. Many athletes get to go to summer games, but not all because there are only a certain number of openings.”
If the summer games don’t work out for certain athletes, one of the organization’s other seasonal competitions will likely provide them with an hour to strive and shine. The falls sports fest features soccer, football, power-lifting, long-distance running, and tennis. There’s an annual golf championship…a cycling championship, too. Plus, skiing and basketball events.
“Most [who are interested] get to have that competitive experience at some point in the year,” Schriml adds.
When pressed for inspirational stories of athletes in action, Schriml sees faces before he conjures any names. So many passionate participants have graced the SOMD stage during his 13-year tenure.
Suddenly, Schriml announces a name into the receiver, “David Godoy!” – he’s a young man in his late 20s, in love with not one sport but two. Godoy’s family relocated to Maryland from South America when he was a child.
“Besides being challenged by acclimating to a new culture and language, David has an intellectual disability and walks on canes,” Schriml says. “He is a cyclist on a three-wheel bike; he’s also an avid snowshoe athlete. It’s a real juxtaposition from what you’d expect of a young man from South America. He’s effective. When I see him on the course or riding a bike, I think, ‘I’m not sure I see this anywhere else but at Special Olympics.’”
Then there’s golfer, Pauline Lloyd, 87, of Frederick County, who has been playing golf much of her adult life – and she still competes annually, Schriml says.
Contrary to most people’s presumptions about the Special Olympics, many of the SOMD participants this weekend – and throughout the year — are kids and adults with real athletic talent to burn on the field and in the pool.
“People have a certain impression,” Schriml says. “[But] we have athletes who are regularly competing and training, and are very good at specific sports. In the school system, they have made their varsity or JV team. We have athletes who compete at the world level; they enter regular events… They compete in team triathlons. Everybody comes in different shapes and sizes; our athletes span quite a variety of skills and abilities.”
The general public – couch potatoes included – are invited to attend the opening ceremony today. See the SOMD website for more information.
“You can come out and cheer them on,” Schriml says. “It’s a big deal for them to have spectators to encourage them. And a great opportunity to see what our athletes are made of.”
The organization relies on a great deal of volunteer support. If you are interested in getting involved, contact Ashley Newnan: [email protected]. According to Schriml, you’ll probably feel lighter in the bargain.
“I find the approach of our athletes to be liberating; it is such a pure and genuine approach with a real belief in their skills and talents,” Schriml says. “I wish I’d had when I was younger. You’ve always got someone in your ear that creeps in – [saying] you’re good or bad. Our athletes don’t let that kind of thinking limit their approach.”
Additionally, to learn more about “End the R-word,” visit the movement’s website.
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