Grassroots Passion for the Special Olympics

Whether it be the International Olympics Games in Sochi this past February, the Paralympics in the coming days, or the World Games of Special Olympics that will take place next year in Los Angeles, we see something very powerful in these kinds of athletic competitions.

We marvel at the courage, determination and sportsmanship when so many talented individuals work their hardest and push themselves to do their very best.

Not only do they break records -- personal and competitive, but they prove to themselves and the world what can be done when given a chance to overcome the odds.

The oldest of the Games, the International Olympics, was founded in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin in Paris. The International Olympic Committee would then hold the first of its Olympic Games two years later, appropriately enough in Athens.

The Paralympic Games were launched more than half a century later. They were founded by the celebrated neurologist, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, whose work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the U.K. pioneered some of the early treatment of spinal cord injuries. But it was athletics, he believed, that could be an important component of therapy. Then, in 1960 when the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome, along with the Summer Olympic Games, the Paralympics were born.

A few years later, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, started a back-yard summer day camp -- "Camp Shriver" it was affectionately called, for children and young people who faced "intellectual disabilities." Looking at people in that unique way proved special. In 1968, she founded Special Olympics, noting that some individuals had "certain limitations in cognitive functioning. These limitations can cause a child to develop and learn more slowly or differently."

From that day on, Special Olympics believes that:

"Through the power of sports, people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success. Our athletes find joy, confidence and fulfillment -- on the playing field and in life. They also inspire in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential."

With those early insights, compassion, and deep sense of caring, Special Olympics has grown to become a global organization that hosts 53,000 athletic competitions each year, ranging from county events to the World Games of Special Olympics which will likely see almost 7,000 athletes from close to 170 countries competing.

Yet, in spite of its growth, it is the local impact that remains so striking.

At heart, it is a grassroots organization. Its strength and passion come from all those who volunteer their time and resources, devoting themselves to the athletes who work so hard to reach goals and demonstrate what they can accomplish.

When you watch the athletes compete, you see it first-hand. And you just know.

When you talk to those who volunteer, they will tell you that they "feel the passion."

What the games of the Special Olympics mean to the athletes themselves and to the volunteers is most often shared in hugs, tears and cheers.

That passion for others was very much in evidence this past Sunday morning as the Special Olympics Miami-Dade County (Florida) Track and Field competition got underway. More than 500 athletes from 40 Miami-Dade public and private schools, community programs and group homes competed. Upwards of 1,200 volunteers joined them, packing the Traz Powell Stadium on the campus of Miami Dade College. The athletes took to the field for track and field events, ranging from the long-jump to the shot put and from pentathlons to wheelchair races.

If you ask Linsey Harris Smith, Director of the Miami-Dade County Special Olympics, what makes it so special, you can hear the passion in her voice:

"Special Olympics is unique. Few other competitions lift so many up and make them feel that anything is within their grasp. This combination of energy and skill create an excitement on the field for athletes, volunteers, parents, and all those who come to see so many young people exceed their own expectation. The grassroots support we have is extraordinary, making all this possible."

And think of it. Just like other Olympics, none of these competitors got to the starting line just because they showed up. They trained. And trained hard. Discipline meant that each competitor had to adhere to a "training protocol." Or else they couldn't be there and compete. Simply put, those are the rules.

The strength of its grassroots support -- financial and other resources -- means there never is a fee for the competitors or their families. And uniforms are provided.

This past Sunday morning was the scene for countless "moments of triumph" on the field. For the young athletes from Miami-Dade County who tested themselves as they competed as hard as they could to get to the finish line first. And for the volunteers who cheered along the way and hugged at the finish line.

Anything is possible for these athletes. Any one of them could advance through a series of State and then national competitions, ultimately competing in one of the World Games of the Special Olympics. After all, Florida had two athletes in the competition last year in the Republic of Korea. Perhaps it will have two more next year in Los Angeles.

This is the grassroots tradition of Special Olympics. It is true to that special spirit of the original backyard "Camp Shriver." It is the chance for special athletes to test themselves as they compete against each other and against themselves.