The "Aha Moment" and What We Can Learn From the Special Olympics

It was October 1988. I had just returned back to my home in Canada after competing in my first Olympics in Seoul, Korea. I had gone into the Games as a medal favorite in my swimming events but things hadn't worked out as planned. I was a disappointing 28th and 5th in my individual races and although I had won a silver medal as part of a relay event, I wasn't very proud of my performance as I had been the weakest link on the team. To make matters worse, our country's star athlete, sprinter Ben Johnson, had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and there was a dark cloud over everything Olympics in Canada. I had expected to return to a hero's welcome but instead was greeted with disillusionment and disdain. I remember sitting at home feeling very depressed about my involvement in sport. Why did I put in so many hours? What was it all about? What had made me want to be a part of this in the first place?

About a month after my return, I received a phone call. There was a local Special Olympics swim meet happening in my city, and I was asked if I would come and give out medals. I didn't know very much about Special Olympics except that it provided sport programs to people with intellectual disabilities. I reluctantly accepted the invitation. I could have never imagined how this single act would change my life forever.

Arriving at the pool, I immediately felt the energy in the air. The Special Olympics athletes were of varying levels of ability, but they shared a passion and enthusiasm that I had seemingly forgotten about in my own pursuit of excellence. I was struck by the collective good will in the pool. The crowd cheered for the swimmers who were winning each race, but screamed even louder for the person who came in last. It was the effort -- the act of participating and finishing -- that was being celebrated. As I handed out the medals and ribbons I was struck by the gratitude, appreciation and unbridled joy I saw in each competitors face, it was as if life was putting a huge mirror in front of me. How could I feel so lost and depressed about my own sport involvement when there was so much to be celebrated? This Special Olympics competition gave me an "Aha moment." It shifted how I looked at things. I had been on the verge of retiring from swimming but left the pool that day having made two decisions. First, I would keep swimming. I wanted to tap into that same joy and passion I had seen from the Special Olympics athletes. That turned out to be an excellent decision, as I would go on to win Olympic gold and bronze medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. More importantly, I would stay involved with Special Olympics so that I would never lose my connection to what really mattered in sport.

Fast forward to July 2015. I am in Los Angeles as the Honorary Coach of Team Canada competing in the Special Olympics World Summer Games. While here, part of my duties include hosting some of our top sponsors that help fund the programs we provide day in and out to over 38,000 athletes in communities across the country. Many of these CEO's and supporters have met some of our Special Olympics athletes at various fund raising events, but they had never seen them in action doing their sports. It has been extraordinary to see these composed leaders screaming at the top of their lungs as we have taken them from venue to venue. Sure, they love the athleticism they see when one of our track athletes does a personal best and wins a medal in the 200-meter dash. But they were equally moved to see a golfer from Costa Rico do a happy dance for two whole minutes after nailing his final putt on the 18th hole. After the first day of touring competition sites, the CEO of a major food chain turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "I really get it now." It has been incredible to see each person on the tour have his or her own "Aha moment."

In a world that focuses so much on winning, sometimes we forget how valuable the simple act of participating and trying can be. We can so easily take community for granted until we see the pure joy that being involved in Special Olympics brings the thousands of athletes assembled in Los Angeles. With EPSN covering the games -- from the Opening Ceremony to highlight packages each day -- I hope that millions of people across the world are also getting their own "Aha moment."