Melinda Gates said it well on CNN.com this morning “the calendar is overflowing with occasions to mark. It seems like there’s a special day for almost everything… But the surplus of observances shouldn’t detract from the really important ones.”  We here at Special Olympics just celebrated the 5th annual ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ day on Wednesday, which was fantastic to see so many people using their voices to promote respect and inclusion.  This week also marks another important celebration, International Women’s Day.

As a female, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on just a few of the incredible women of Special Olympics who are making an impact, and also to recognize the need to get even more females involved in Special Olympics.   Just over a third, 38.4%*, of our Special Olympics athletes around the world are female (*as of 2011 census data).  That’s more than 1.5 million athletes, but we have so many more girls still to reach across the world who can use the power of sport to demonstrate their personal best.

Just this morning, a colleague received a report from one of our great partners, Team Mattel, demonstrating the impact they are having in developing female Special Olympics leaders.  With Mattel’s support, Special Olympics Thailand has focused on developing women’s football (soccer) and bocce teams, as well as encouraging more women to coach.

A Special Olympics Thailand athlete competes at their National bocce championshipin December

A Special Olympics Thailand athlete competes at their National bocce championship in December

Only a few months ago, Special Olympics Thailand organized its very first football coaching clinic for women in Bangkok, and they now have 14 new female football coaches!  They also had 103 females from 33 schools across Thailand participate in Special Olympics Unified Sports at their national bocce championships in December.  Success stories like these from across the world are inspiring, as are some of the countless specific females who keep Special Olympics growing and achieving success.

The first to come to my mind is the one-and-only Loretta Claiborne.  Loretta is a Special Olympics athlete and board member and one of the most inspirational and remarkable women of our time. Loretta is seriously the “Michael Jordan” of Special Olympics athletes – a true legend. She’s competed in countless sports, including more than 26 marathons, has won an ESPY award for courage and oh yeah – has had a movie made about her life and the incredible odds she has overcome. I was fortunate to be in a business meeting with her the other day and as I sat across the table from her listening to everything she said with such passion and conviction, you are reminded of the power one woman has to make a difference.  Speaking of, what about our late Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver?  None of what exists today with more than 50,000 annual competitions and over 4 million Special Olympics athletes worldwide would be possible without her determination and vision.   We have countless other leaders that follow in Mrs. Shriver’s legacy today.  The legendary figure skaters and Special Olympics ambassadors Michelle Kwan and Yuna Kim just recently skated in our Special Olympics World Winter Games PyeongChang 2013 Closing Ceremony, performing alongside Special Olympics athletes, showcasing the unifying power of sport. Earlier before the performance Kwan said during a press conference, “There are four million Special Olympics athletes around the world, all of who have learned a lot from sports. We’ve all fallen and learned how to pick yourself back up. It’s about doing your very own best.”

Or what about International Global Mesenger, Caroline Verdenal of Special Olympics France?  I had the honor of sitting next to her at our media reception in PyeongChang during World Winter Games and she talked about the great work she is doing helping to coach her local Special Olympics basketball team.  She’s constantly encouraging others to stay positive and do their best. Caroline and other female Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers are a testament to the females leading our movement across the world.  I also recently had the privilege of meeting Special Olympics North Carolina athlete Krystle Bailey who demonstrated the inclusionary power of Special Olympics Unified Sports as she played basketball in front of a packed arena alongside her professional teammates Nicole Powell of the New York Liberty and WNBA legend Ticha Penicheiro.

There are so many other female Special Olympics athletes, coaches, officials, ambassadors, volunteers and family members who are showing the potential that women have to truly change the world.  Today, on International Women’s Day, I am proud to reflect on knowing some of these women and eager to meet more.  Working together, hopefully we can increase that 38.4% aforementioned figure as we continue to strive for a world in which people with intellectual disabilities lead healthy, vibrant lives grounded in ongoing sports and physical activity, sound nutrition and a deeply held conviction to improve, compete, achieve and demonstrate their personal best to themselves and their community.

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