Before I became involved with Special Olympics, I found myself on the outskirts. I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. When I became a Special Olympics athlete here in British Columbia, I finally met a group of folks who accepted me. I no longer felt on the outside. Making friends was easier and so was playing sports, something I was not able to do in school.
Now I participate in swimming, track and field, and basketball, and I have found a new sense of community alongside my fellow athletes. We all have different abilities, yet NONE of us are shunned or not included. I am so thankful to the athletes and coaches who saw talents in me I didn't even know I had.
For example, when I was first learning the breaststroke, getting the kick to go with the stroke was VERY difficult and it only made things harder when I got frustrated and mad. My coaches, believing in me, maintained their calm and reassured me I could do it -- and eventually I did. I have even won first place doing that stroke.
Inclusion is one of the most important factors that Special Olympics strives for. Started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, it has become a worldwide movement with year-round sports programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Today more than 4.5 million Special Olympics athletes all over the planet prove that just because someone has an intellectual disability, it does not mean they aren't capable of being an athlete.
I see happiness and pride in the eyes and smiles of athletes I've played and competed with over the years. I feel a tear welling up as I think about the athlete who has difficulty moving down the basketball court but whose coaches and team rally around him as he shoots a perfect basket. Or the athletes who can curl, thanks to the coaches who have their needs in mind and supply adaptations.
We even have a local swimmer who has represented our country and brought back medals from the Special Olympics World Games in Greece, home of the Olympics! No matter the sport, athletes' needs are considered and met with patience and understanding.
Programs are available for the younger generation, the "up and comers" if you will. Special Olympics Young Athletes program is for athletes as young as two years of age! Through the power of play, these children are shown that they are able, and gain important physical, social and mental skills that will better prepare them for sports, school and life.
In our community alone, more than 50 volunteers and coaches dedicate their time to Special Olympics because of their firm belief in the abilities of people with different abilities.
The spirit of Special Olympics is so alive and well that it moves other community groups to get involved. Our local Royal Canadian Mounted Police members play soccer and floor hockey with our teams. Local schools open their venues for our competitions and training camps. Recently, a college women's basketball team hosted a skills camp for our local Special Olympics British Columbia -- Sunshine Coast teams. These elite players took time to laugh, play, and teach. They saw us as we are. They saw themselves not as better but as equals.
When I look upon other athletes I don't see a label, I see a strong, willing, and most of all ABLE human being who is giving it their all. There is nothing more powerful.
Not only has Special Olympics helped me become the athlete that I am today, it has also nurtured my talent as a writer so that I can spread awareness in my community. I am the Athlete Reporter for Special Olympics British Columbia -- Sunshine Coast and I write a monthly column for a local paper, where I discuss our chapter's goings on. Special Olympics also provides Athlete Leadership courses for other athletes to become leaders within Special Olympics and public speakers who spread awareness through presentations.
Special Olympics is the epitome of inclusion. We are welcomed into a family of open arms and loving hearts teeming with fair play, community, and athleticism.
It's terrific to be a part of something so beautiful.
This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Special Olympics for the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, which takes place on December 3.