For the last few months I have been helping coach a Special Olympics swimming team here in Charlotte. It started out just as a one-time thing. Then it became a weekly thing. I became friends with many of the athletes and began to really look forward to the swim practices. I was asked by the head coach if I could help at a local swim meet they were competing in. I loved getting to see them compete and the joy they showed when they got their ribbons after their races. So when the head coach asked if I would consider going with the team to Raleigh for the NC Special Olympics State Games, I said I would.
I was nervous about going to Raleigh. This was a whole different set of circumstances. Coaching for an hour or so at the pool is one thing. Being a chaperone for a whole weekend, staying in dorm rooms and being responsible for a whole team of people with special needs is something completely different. The head coach let me know this. The sly smile on his face didn’t help my nervousness. I don’t have kids myself so I don’t even know how to take care of standard kids (I use the word standard here instead of normal because if I were to say normal kids then that would mean that the athletes are not normal and I just don’t feel that’s the case). I knew this was going to be an interesting weekend. I expected to learn a lot. I did, but the things I learned were not what I expected.
We arrived in Raleigh after driving through a brutal rain storm on Friday night. That night was the opening ceremonies. Athletes from all over the state were there for all different kinds of sports. The enthusiasm that the athletes showed was astounding. Almost every face beamed with a big smile. The athletes said hello to and hugged friends they hadn’t seen in a while and seem to thrive on being in a situation where they weren’t different. They danced after the ceremonies were over to the music of the live band and mingled with each other. Fun was in the air, but make no mistake, they knew why they were there and it wasn’t to dance. These athletes take their sports seriously and when we were heading back to the dorms all the talk was about the games the next day. I could feel their nervousness, but I could also feel their desire to compete and show what they could do. What I didn’t realize was how much heart I was going to see displayed over the next 2 days.
The next morning we all got up to get ready for the games. After taking a shower and getting dressed I went out to the dorm rooms to make sure everybody was up and getting ready only to find out I was the last one there. The athletes were already down and eating their breakfast. They were ready to go. We arrived at the pool venue and I was impressed not only by the facilities, but also by the amount of spectators that were there. I took the swimmers down to the pool to warm up and we had a problem. One of the athletes said he didn’t want to swim. I’ll call him Ben. Ben said he was just too nervous, he couldn’t think right. He was too nervous about competing in front of his mom and dad. He had brothers who were great athletes and were stars on their regular school teams. He felt like if he didn’t excel like they did then he would embarrass his parents (which I knew wouldn’t happen because his parents were very supportive). His head was hung low and his words were soft and breaking up. The pressure was too much and he was starting crumble. “What if my times aren’t good? What if I don’t do well? I don’t want my dad to be disappointed. I don’t want to do this.”, Ben said. I made him look me in the eye and I said, “Just swim. Don’t worry about your time. Don’t worry about the other swimmers. You have already put in the work. This is the easy part. Just swim.” Ben said, “Ok.” Then he took a deep breath and got in the pool to warm up. Before his first race he was shaking, but determined. I repeated, “Just swim.” The race started and he took off. The place was loud! The cheers rose as the swimmers got near the finish. Then it was over. The kid who was scared to race because he was worried about not doing well had just finished in second place and won a silver medal. I’ve heard of smiles that go from ear to ear, but I had never actually seen one until then. To say he was thrilled wouldn’t do justice to the feeling he had. No athlete at the Summer Olympics in London this summer who wins a silver medal will be as happy as he was about winning his. His dad was very proud, but that was just the start for this swimmer who went on to beat all of his qualifying times, win numerous races he was not supposed to win and turned out to be the biggest surprise on the team. That leads to a different story.
These athletes love to win. They love getting medals and being recognized for their accomplishments, but that is only part of the story. We have all heard that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. We hear it over and over again, but rarely do we see athletes who actually believe it. We see athletes who are gracious in defeat, but we know underneath they are disappointed and upset. These athletes I was coaching and those they were competing against hated to lose, but the way they handle it was different from anyone I had seen before. They were disappointed they didn’t win, but were genuinely happy for those that had just beaten them. I don’t mean that they weren’t gracious. They were, but it wasn’t for show. They really were happy for the winners. There was a race that we had 2 swimmers in. Luckily they were in lanes that were pretty close to each other so I could monitor both during the race. 1 of our swimmers was the favorite. I’ll call him Bill. Bill had the best qualifying time and we thought he had a great chance for the gold. The other was Ben that I previously mentioned. He was not supposed to do well in this race. It was not his best stroke and he only had the 9th best qualifying time. With 10 swimmers in the race I just hoped he wouldn’t finish last. The race started and they all took off. I was watching the swimmer I thought would win, but he was struggling. He just couldn’t seem to find the speed and was lagging behind most of the other swimmers. Then I noticed Ben burning it up. He actually had a shot to win. The swimmers were rushing to the finish. 3 of them all seem to touch the wall at the same time. I looked up to the scoreboard. There was a big ‘1’ next to Ben’s name. He did it. He won a race that nobody even thought he could compete in. He was jumping up and down just thrilled to death. But what about Bill? He finished 7th. He was looking down. He was still in the pool and had seen the 7 next to his name. I pulled him out and patted him on the back, “Don’t sweat it. You got other races to think about. I’m proud of you.” He took a deep breath and looked up at the scoreboard again. Then he noticed Ben had won. “Ben won!?”, he asked. When I said yes, his whole demeanor changed. He went from depressed to thrilled. He ran over to Ben and they hugged and jumped up and down at the same time. He almost seemed more happy that Ben had won instead of himself. How many athletes do you know who would react like that? I just stood back and watched them celebrate with complete admiration for both. I couldn’t have been prouder if I had just coached a Super Bowl winning team. I would see something similar later that day.
The Saturday races finished a little early and we found we had some free time in the late afternoon so we decided to go watch some of the softball games. The swimmers had some friends competing and they wanted to cheer them on. I saw something remarkable during one of the games. There was a runner on 1st base. The batter hit a shot to left field. The runner on 1st base took off and rounded 2nd base. As he went to 3rd he collapsed. I wasn’t sure what happened to him, he somehow hurt his leg and was lying in the dirt. The outfielder had the ball and reeled back to throw the ball to third. Then he stopped. He had the ball cocked back and was ready to gun it in to third, but froze. He saw what had happened. He took the ball down and put it in his glove. Then he waited. The shortstop was already over trying to help the injured runner. The coaches began to come out, but the runner waved them off. He slowly got up with the shortstop’s help and began to limp to third base. The outfielder was still holding the ball. He waited until the runner got to third and then threw the ball in. None of his teammates had told him to throw it in before that. They all wanted the injured runner to get his base. I could see the coaches of both teams beaming with pride, but not the players. It was as if the players expected nothing less of each other. They knew what it felt like to be at a disadvantage. More so than any people I’ve ever dealt with these athletes respected each other, supported each other and had each other’s backs.
We admire athletes. We watch games and cheer wildly. We idolize the great ones. We pay them millions of dollars, put posters up of them and wish we could be them. We admire the sacrifices they make to be great. We admire the athlete who plays through pain, the athlete who suffers through the 3 hours of pain during a football game to help his team win. But what about the athlete who suffers through pain just to get out of bed, who suffers through pain just to get to the event, who suffers through pain during the event and who suffers through pain after the event. What about the athlete who suffers through all this pain not to win, but just to compete. There are no posters of these athletes and they don’t have millions of adoring fans. They have one big fan though and that’s me. These athletes have to put up with being made fun of, being teased and being told they aren’t as good as standard people. They are called names including the most dreaded name of all, retarded. The word strikes a chord of hurt in all of them. Every day in life we deal with other people who lie, deceive, cheat and hurt each other, yet these athletes that are labeled as being somehow inferior to us show complete respect for each other and everyone else. Not surprisingly, the people who are most likely to lie, deceive, cheat and hurt others are also the most likely to use the word retarded to describe these athletes. These athletes are not inferior to us. It’s quite the opposite. They rise above our pettiness and selfishness. As a coach I know how important it is to teach them and not underestimate what they can do. What I learned that weekend is that they can teach us as much as we can teach them and the things they can teach us are much more important than anything we will teach them.