The following is a guest blog post by Amie Dugan, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Special Olympics Florida:
Yesterday, on the last day of competition at the Special Olympics World Summer Games Athens 2011, I watched Florida (USA) athlete Jonathan Doring compete for gold in men’s tennis singles.
I’ve known Jonathan for 17 years, here are a few things I’ve learned about him in that time: he’s 30 years old, he’s been in Special Olympics for 22 years, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, he loves playing and creating video games, he’s a certified USTA (United States Tennis Association) official, he’s incredible with math, stats and facts, he’s a Global Messenger and Athlete Leader, and he’s an outstanding athlete.
He also is a person with Fragile X Syndrome, the most common known cause of autism.
OK, so what? Why does that matter? Because yesterday, those lucky enough to be at Court 9 of the tennis venue witnessed a moment that was a lifetime in the making.
Jonathan is a very polite, kind-hearted guy, but Fragile X has kept him at an emotional distance from others. For years, Jonathan couldn’t make direct eye contact, his tactile sensitivity issues made it hard for him to wear his medals, he wouldn’t shake your hand, and interactions were always brief and pragmatic.
But over time, that has slowly changed. He’ll now shake your hand. He can look you in the eye when you talk to him (for a bit). He wears his medals (after some adjusting). His parents, Mark and Kathy say, “We truly believe that his personal success, his transformation, is due primarily to his participation in Special Olympics.”
Then came yesterday.
Jonathan won his first set, he was off his game in the second set, but then rallied back in the third, winning a dramatic tiebreaker.
The moment he won that last point, he threw his fists into the sky in victory and then collapsed flat onto the court, overwhelmed by the moment.
And then he began to cry. He began to sob…with tears of joy. This is the power of Special Olympics, watching sport manifest a moment of emotional expression and connection so powerful, the curtain of Fragile X was lifted, if ever so briefly.
As he cried, he kept apologizing to his parents and others: “I’m sorry I’m crying, I’m sorry I’m crying.” His parents reassured him that his tears of joy were perfectly OK. And then Jonathan said “I’m sorry I’m crying…it’s just that I’ve never been this happy in my whole life.”
I extended my hand to congratulate him and he gave me a hug instead. A big, big, hug.
“I’ve never been this happy in my whole life.” Jonathan won the Gold, but those few words were his personal victory. Those words were his family’s victory. That hug was a victory.
Those honest and compelling words beautifully captured everything Special Olympics represents and should be.