Special Olympics World Games are long, hard work for everyone involved to pull off such an amazing event. For those of us behind the scenes, sometimes you can unfortunately overlook the bigger picture of what Special Olympics is truly all about when you are so busy running around, in meetings and on phone calls. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to have a window of time out at the competition venues with our incredible athletes where I felt the essence of Special Olympics ecompass me - the power of sports in its purest form – when I witnessed Special Olympics Team USA win gold in both softball and football (soccer).
It was another hot, summer day here in Athens, Greece. The softball venue down at Hellinikon was stirring with family, friends and fans as USA and Russia battled back and forth for the gold medal. Early on USA was down 5-2, then came back in the 4th inning to rally with several back-to-back hits and go up 10-6. Russia wouldn’t give up though and fought back with a few hard-earned plays to tie it up at 10-10. Then in the bottom of the last inning with a teammate on second, the crowd rose to their feet. “U-S-A! U-S-A!” you could hear the upper deck chant as #17 from Team USA, Daniel Bena, stepped to the plate and crushed a walk-off shot past the second baseman out center field to send his teammate Justin Hansen in to score the winning run. Team USA wins 11-10. It was awesome. The team poured out on to the field in celebration.
Before I could join in the excitement I had to grab our videographer and run across the complex to try and catch some of the gold medal football game of USA vs. Spain. When we arrived the game was tied 1-1. Before you knew it, US scores, goes up 2-1 and the game is over. This was the moment that did it. I had met this team out at Special Olympics Team USA training camp back in March. They have been playing together for many, many years across a variety of sports, but never before did they have the opportunity to go to World Games as a team to play soccer. Back in March, the sentiment was really just that they were fortunate to have the oppportunity to play in Greece, especially since soccer is the world’s most popular sport, they figured they would face stiff competition at World Games. Now so many weeks later, here they were, beating a very good Spanish team and winning gold. Their team captain, Wesley, was beaming with pride. Wesley has been participating with Special Olympics since playing 1999 unified 11-a-side soccer at Special Olympics US National Games. Both of Wesley’s brothers are also Special Olympics athletes, and his family supports all of them. For everything he said after the victory – - “This means a lot to us. We’ve been playing for a really long time together, and now on the international stage like this, it means everything to us.” – - it was honest and endearing but almost expected. Then he paused and said one line that just said it all to me about our Special Olympics athletes: “We are capable of everything. EVERYTHING.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. You looked out on the field and in that moment these athletes could have been Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham or Lionel Messi. I am not an avid soccer person but the point is you couldn’t tell the difference between our Special Olympics athletes and the world’s most famous athletes. They were winners. They were victorious and they earned every right to be. The amazing part was that it probably impacted all of us watching more than watching any professional mega-star win anything – at least it was for me. I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have attended World Cups and Super Bowls and all kinds of professional sporting events but in that moment of victory on a tiny soccer field in a former Greek airport yesterday there was more energy and life than you could capture in words. I felt the true power of sports that translated to life that anything is possible. So congrats to the Team USA soccer team, softball team, and all the others here at our World Games that competed over the past 10 days with 7000 athletes from nearly 180 countries. Whether you came in 1st or 101st if you have just felt that moment that you have given your personal best and know that you are ‘capable of everything’ than you too have felt the power of Special Olympics.