Today’s blog is longer than usual. Please read the whole story. It will be worth your time.
Thursday and Friday of this week, Tom and I attended the Special Olympics Provincial Summer Games in Brampton, where our granddaughter, Nessa, age 27, was participating. Over the years, I’ve learned that every Special Olympics is a life-changing experience for family, friends, strangers who come to watch. We had a great time cheering for every athlete in every event, for that is one of the unique things about Special Olympics. Almost immediately the spectator realizes that they are watching monumental courage and determination as even the slowest runner struggles over the finish line. We want to cheer for everyone. We’re there to add our voices, our applause, to the support for each athlete.
We caught the excitement at the opening ceremonies as over 700 athletes and coaches marched in. Their smiles, their cheers, their joy at just being there, lit up the arena. We listened as government officials from every level and the hosts, Peel Regional Police Services, one after another welcomed the athletes and affirmed them for being who they are. By the time Abbamania started the actual entertainment, we were all so pumped that we stood and danced and sang along with the musicians. We had caught the Spirit and we were flying.
Each athlete competes in his or her track event twice. After the initial trial, the athlete’s recorded results, along with their coach’s submitted prediction of their ability in that event, are used to establish the skill level for each competitor. This means that the participants are divided not just by gender and age, but also by ability in their sport. The second trial is the actual competition. The athlete competes against himself as well as others in his ability level (division).
Here is part of Nessa’s story from this three-day sporting event. Nessa participated in four track events. Friday, she ran her first trial for the fifty meter race.
Before I tell you about that race, you need to know a little about our wonderful granddaughter, the angel of our entire family. Besides being developmentally delayed, Vanessa has no depth perception. That means she doesn’t know where her foot will land with every step. I liken it to you or I running down a set of stairs. About halfway down your foot comes hits a step that is two inches deeper or shallower than you expect. Your entire body is jarred. You stumble. Sometimes you fall. It’s a scary experience.
Vanessa experiences that jar every time she steps down on an uneven surface. Not knowing what to expect, she hesitates when she sees a change in surface color or texture, even a crack in the pavement.
Nessa also suffers from anxiety. She’s anxious. She worries. Fear is ever present in her life, particularly fear of falling. We know lots of seniors who don’t like to go out in the winter because they fear they will slip on the ice. Nessa has no choice. If she lets fear control her, she won’t be able to go anywhere. Consequently, when she’s outside, she holds your hand for security. When we walk together, I feel her whole body tremble as she stands at a curb and tentatively reaches out her foot searching for the pavement below. I’ve seen her hesitate when the sidewalk changes to asphalt. In my mind I hear her silent question, “Where will my foot land? Am I going to fall?”
At the track meet, among all those strangers, in that new place, Nessa hung onto someone for every step. On Friday Nessa had to run her fifty metre race all by herself. Her coach, walked with her onto the rubberized track. Once Nessa was settled in her running lane, her coach returned to the sidelines. As Tom described it, Nessa stood there, looking like a young deer caught in a car’s headlights. She listened and waited while a track official explained the rules of the race. Get ready, get set and the gun was fired.
The other seven athletes ran, some very slowly, but they ran. Nessa stood there. Tentatively, she stretched her foot over the starting line. It landed safely, so she took another step, and another, until she was sort of jogging. She continued jogging for about thirty metres. As the fear gradually took over, Nessa slowed to a walk. Every one of us, spectators, volunteers, other athletes started to cheer, “Keep going Nessa, you can do it.” About ten feet from the finish line, she stopped, then tentatively, one painful step at a time, she moved forward until she stepped over that line. We cheered, “You did it, Nessa, you did it.” Tears slip down my cheeks once again as I write this. Once over that line, Nessa stopped and didn’t move until a volunteer came to take her hand. She smiled. She knew she’d done well.
Nessa has to run that race all over again today. Whether she has a faster time, even if she can’t make it over the line doesn’t matter. Friday, she did it. She conquered her fear. She stood there a champion.
At the Special Olympics Summer Games, I experienced courage and determination, not just in our Nessa, but in every athlete, as they overcame their own particular obstacles and made it to the finish line, did the jump, threw the javelin. Of course, those athletes walked back along the fence, with wide smiles and high fives from us the spectators. Of course they cheered themselves, whether they were first or last in the competition. They had challenged their demons and won yet again. For today, they had done their best.
Attending any Special Olympics event is a lesson in courage for living. I recommend you seek one out and go. This kind of competition is a life-changer. I guarantee the experience will transform your perception of your world.