Today, exactly one year ago, I was at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. This year I attended the not much less spectacular Game of Golds, a.k.a. the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games. They took place at Towson University in Towson, Md. from Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 9. Here are some of my favorite moments:
Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle - July, 2018
In early July, more than 4,000 athletes and coaches and 15,000 volunteers descended on Seattle to participate in the Special Olympics USA Games. Total attendance across 14 venues was 101,500. I was very lucky to be one of them as part of Special Olympics Maryland’s media team.
I have hesitated to write a story about the Games for several reasons. How can any words describe the magnitude of the experience, the passion among the athletes, and abilities of the intellectually-disabled? How can the joy, camaraderie, friendliness, kindnesses, or all-around “having each other’s back” feelings be translated into words that do them justice? How can I explain what the entire experience has done to me on a personal level: old friendships reaffirmed, new friendships made, that feeling of belonging - not only in the media team or in Team MD athletes, coaches, family and friends but also a belonging among the 101,500 USA Games attendants?
As I spent many hours contemplating what to write, the Special Olympics Athlete Oath kept popping up in my thoughts:
Let me win.
But if I cannot win,
Let me be brave
in the attempt.
This perfectly describes all the athletes at the Games: there were many attempts made and they were all brave! As so many touching and inspirational stories have been told in the media outlets, suffice it to say that witnessing this firsthand was an unforgettable experience. What an incredible example the athletes set for all of us!
Another Special Olympics motto that really appeals to me comes to mind: Choose to Include. We need to include and welcome people with intellectual disabilities in our society! And I saw that happening at the USA Games on a very large scale. Of course, volunteers, coaches, family, friends, and other supporters were there to love and celebrate the athletes. But everyone else connected with the Games - camera operators and photographers, groundskeepers, vendors, sponsors and students on the campus where the Games took place - actively appreciated and included the Special Olympics community. And many good people of Seattle welcomed the athletes and their supporters with open arms and showed genuine interest in the Games and the people involved.
But the athletes themselves are the best model of Choose to Include, extending inclusion not just to their fellow athletes and teammates, but also to all of us cheering them on. They let us into their lives; they shared their brave attempts and accomplishments with us. They gave us their friendship and love. For all of that, I cannot thank the Special Olympics athletes enough.
Once again, the Special Olympics athletes are leading the way: in their Inclusion Revolution. It’s not just them but ANYONE who is different in any way or is facing mental disabilities who needs to be included. This is the Inclusion Pledge:
I pledge. To look for the lonely. The isolated. The left out. The challenged. The bullied.
I pledge. To overcome the fear of difference. And replace it with the power of inclusion.
As I am not an eloquent writer or speaker I’d like to stop my thoughts here and show some photos. Of course I took thousands of them and many show the athletic accomplishments but I just picked a few photos capturing the spirit of my experience.
All Special Olympics USA Games Team Maryland photos here: SPECIAL OLYMPICS
She's a teacher, she's an organizer and fundraiser, she's a smiler! She's very involved with people with disabilities and has been since she participated in the best-buddy program during her high school years. She's outgoing, charming and full of life! But most of all she's an amazing Super Plunger!
This weekend the Special Olympics Maryland Polar Bear Plunges took place at Sandy Point State Park , Md. The events kicked off with a Cool School Plunge on Thursday, followed by a Police, Firefighter/EMS and Military Plunge and a Corporate Plunge on Friday and culminating in three gigantic Polar Bear Plunges for everybody else on Saturday.
Mary didn't just do one of these plunges. Not even two or three. She probably plunged more than 25 times this year (but I actually have to ask her because I think it's even more than that). And she hasn't done that just this year but she's been at it for 8 years!
On Thursday, Mary plunged with 270 students and 12 teachers (that's 7 school buses full) of South River High. She got them there, she inspired and recruited the kids, she organized many fundraisers, she took care of the required forms and waivers and she collected the money. This year the school raised $ 34,000 and were the #1 team (again). In total the school, over a 7 year period, has raised about $ 250,000. And then after the Cool School Plunge, she came back on Friday to start super plunging: a plunge every hour during a period of 24 hours.
I met Mary during the Super Plunge in 2014; the coldest plunge EVER, when the waves in the Chesapeake Bay kept bringing in ice through which the plungers had to find their way! (For those interested, here are some photos: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Polar-Bear-Plunge-12514.) It didn't discourage her though. This year was her 5th time as a super plunger (7th time overall, including the cool school plunge). She teamed-up with South River High student and student liaison Caroline Boyd whose father, Don Boyd, is the captain of the Super Plunge Team.
This Saturday Mary and I sat down for a few moments to talk. This was after plunge # 23 at around 8:15 AM and she was tired! Very tired. The "dark side of the moon" plunges (between 1 and 5AM) had been hard. When I asked her if she was planning to continue being a super plunger in the next few years she was a little hesitant. "As long as her body would let her", she said! "It takes more and more time recovering..."
Mary, the following photos are worth a thousand words, all illustrating what an amazing, inspiring, funny and kind plunger you are! Thank you for all that you do! I have a feeling you'll continue doing this for a few more years!
And to all super plungers: you all deserve to be the subject of a blog. You are all so, so special. Thank you for showing me the way! Your photos are here: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Super-Plunge-27-2817.