Yesterday I had the great privilege of attending the Special Olympics to watch my son compete in the elementary school events. This was my third year and it was, once again, the highlight of school field trips for me. Each year they begin with a processional. All the kids march in with their school banner held out in front of them. Bagpipes pipe them in as the Police band plays. A professional announcer calls out the names of all the schools. A professional motivational speaker opens up the games. Retired teachers, staff from several businesses and lots of community volunteers are walking around organizing and encouraging and smiling.
And as I watch, my wonderful,
beautiful, autistic boy jumps and dances and sings and waves his hat in the
air, proudly wearing his school colours and smiling with an openness and joy
that brings tears to my eyes and brings this mama’s heart near to bursting with
love and gratitude. Here, in this sacred
space, these kids—some, like mine, with autism, some in wheelchairs, some with
Down syndrome, some with complex challenges not easily defined—here they are
all the same. Here, they all
belong. Here, they are all athletes. That is how they are referred to by the
announcers. That is how they are treated by
all the event organizers. That is how
they see themselves as they run and jump and throw.
Each event is set up exactly as
it would be for any sports team or competition.
Real equipment. Real timers. Real long jump pits and real race
tracks. Real scores are kept and tallied
and compared with real winners and losers.
And through it all, these wonderful kids are treated with a respect and a
seriousness that is often missing from other aspects of their lives. Here, they get to be ‘just like’ the other
kids. For a few hours they get to
experience what their ‘normal’ peers take for granted: the ability to compete, the chance to win,
and the chance to lose; to experience the anticipation of waiting for race
results and final scores. They mount the
podium to receive ribbons, or they practice good sportsmanship as they cheer on
their friends and classmates in spite of their own disappointments. There are no consolation prizes or
For a few brief hours yesterday I
got to experience being the typical parent at a typical track and field
event. Except that in many ways it was
not typical. Most track events don’t
have wheelchair races. I imagine that
relay races don’t require a peer coach.
When I was in track and field long jumpers couldn’t hold their teacher’s
hand as the ran down the course. There
were so many things, large and small, that reminded me that this was not a
typical experience. But it was
nonetheless a better one. Because these
kids were not competing with each other.
Oh, they were quite serious about their ribbons and prizes. But competition was not the spirit of the
day. Inclusion was. Respect was.
The opportunity for everyone to participate was at the centre of
I watched my son participate in a
relay with a boy who had significant physical challenges, costing them a first
place ribbon. And then I watched him laugh
for joy when he was presented with the second place prize. We talked on the way home not about how they
lost first place, but about how great it was for that boy to be on a team that
placed second…probably a first for him.
Throughout the day I smiled and
laughed and winked conspiratorially with other parents who were experiencing
the same happiness as me. Walking
through the gates of the stadium we had all dropped the weight of being
‘special needs’ parents and became simply ‘parents’ cheering on our athletes. For a few hours, we were free from stares and
comments, misunderstandings and pity. For
a few hours we were surrounded by people who saw our children not as
burdens or exceptions but as athletes yearning to play in the games. For a few hours, we knew the joy of
celebrating our special kids for the things that make them truly special…their
humour, their perseverance, their sportsmanship, their kindness, their
willingness to keep on trying.
There is an old sports
expression: For the love of the
game. That’s what I saw at Special
Olympics. I saw students coming together
from different backgrounds, with different needs and a variety of challenges,
and playing for the love of the game.
The freedom they found in that…the freedom to enjoy participating over
winning, the freedom to celebrate an opponent’s victory as much as your own,
the freedom to include everyone and exclude no one, regardless of ability…that
freedom is something every athlete should get to experience. But I fear that in the fierce competitiveness
and pressure of sports today, playing for the love of the game is often missed,
And so as I left the stadium
yesterday, picking up once again the mantle of ‘special’ mama, I felt sorry for
those ‘normal’ kids, competing in ‘normal’ games because I knew that no matter
how many games they won or trophies that they accumulated, they would never
know the pure joy of playing just for the love of the game that our kids
experienced that day. And I said a
special prayer of gratitude for the many and unexpected blessings that God has
rained down on me, chief among them my beautiful boy and his amazing