Special Olympic motto: ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt’
The Olympics bring out the best in athletes. And it’s inspiring.
There’s the pageantry. There’s the great athleticism. There’s the simple thrill of competition.
And it has nothing to do with Rio de Janeiro or the commercialization of the human competition.
Sure, the Summer Olympics are a spectacle that is drawing the eyes of the world.
But for me, the Olympics are special … as in Special Olympics.
I was in Kansas a couple of weeks ago on the tail end of a vacation. I had the chance to watch my niece and nephew participate in the Special Olympics state games in Wichita.
Our original plan was to fly in from England to Wichita on a late Thursday night, rest up on Friday and drive back to North Dakota early Saturday morning. We wanted to start that 13-hour drive early so we could have plenty of time to relax on Sunday before my wife started a week-long training starting on Monday.
We were also were going to bring my nephew Michael with us for a week. That would mean he would have to miss the state tournament. But that was OK with him.
On Friday, we went out for ice cream. My niece, Helen, who stands about four feet tall and has a smile that could melt an iceberg, sat next to me and said: “I wish you and Aunt Paula could watch me play.”
She gave me a hug and then walked to the next table sat beside her brother. She looked back once and then smiled again.
I had all the reasons to stay on schedule, one just one to stay.
Then that little voice chimed in. You know the voice, that one that always seems to say the right things, but the one you ignore most of the times, the Voice of Reason.
“If you don’t stay, you suck, pal. If you say no to that little girl, I’m going to kick your butt.”
OK. OK. You don’t have to get physical. I’ll think about it.
A little later, while we were driving back to my sister’s house, Helen looked at me with those big blue eyes, welling up a bit. Her rosy lips quivered and she sighed slightly.
“Uncle Bryan, can you please watch me play?”
At that moment, I would’ve given up my breakfast burrito because of that simple request. And the Voice of Reason didn’t have to stay a word.
When we arrived at the house, I told my wife what Helen had asked, and I suggested we stay for the game. She smiled and gave me a hug. She wanted to stay, too.
I told Helen to ask her aunt if we could stay and watch the game. And when she said yes, Helen’s smile seemed to swallow her entire face. She buried little face into my wife’s chest, the words “thank you, thank you, thank you” muffled but audible and emotional.
I had to look away or I would’ve been bawling myself.
The morning of the games, Helen was wearing her “special” cap. It was a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, one that Helen said brought her good luck. And it had already done its job because we were staying to watch her play.
When we arrived at the field, there were about a dozen team from all over Kansas. The athletes, some wearing spiffy looking uniforms while others sporting shorts and t-shirts, but all stood tall and proud. Helen and Michael were among them, grinning and happy to be a part of this special festival.
A special feeling came over me and a trickle or two rolled down my beard stubbled face. I didn’t care who saw me, either. Didn’t matter, anyway, because there wasn’t many dry eyes in our section of the stands.
As it turned out, Helen’s and Michael’s games were at the same time on fields that were located next to each other. I got to watch both games at the same time.
It was fun watching them play ball. Helen started her game pitching but then was moved to third base and batted cleanup. Michael played shortstop and was the leadoff hitter in his game.
I was told that it didn’t matter who won the game, just given the opportunity to participate was the important thing. If that was true, somebody forgot to tell the athletes on the field. They hit the ball hard, they made great defensive plays and made strong throws.
I was impressed by their athleticism, some more than other. But they all contributed in their own unique way.
But beyond that, I was even more impressed by the way they supported each other. While pitching, Helen kind of struggled a bit. Her first six pitches were outside the strike zone and she was getting frustrated. The batter encouraged her, urging her to take her time and that he had confidence she could do it. The next pitch was a strike. A smile stretched across her face and she pumped her fist. The batter, also smiling, nodded his head and said: “I knew you could do it.”
The waterworks started again.
In Michael’s game, he hammered the first pitch. It went to the fence. He was kind of surprised and hesitated a second. The catcher was amazed by the hit, and for a second, they both stood watching the centerfielder chase the ball. The catcher then told Michael to “run to first, and run fast.”
He did and made it all the way to third base. The third baseman patted Michael on the back and congratulated him on his blast. The third baseman’s smile was almost as big as Michael’s.
The sportsmanship displayed was amazing and made me feel fortunate to experience their show.
But perhaps to best display occurred a few innings later. Michael’s team was on defense, and I think they had a two-run lead. The other team’s batter hit a wicked line drive to the pitcher and the ball smacked him in the knee. The pitcher went down had as the ball trickled toward third base.
The batter felt terrible and he ran to his downed opponent instead of running to first base. The pitcher urged everybody that he was OK. He picked up the ball, but instead of tagging out his opponent, the pitcher told him to go to first because “he would’ve made it if he hadn’t checked on me.”
At that moment, I was lifted to a different place, a better place.