The Road From Uncertainty to Inclusion

The Road From Uncertainty to Inclusion

What has transpired in the last few years is a lot to grasp.  When it started I was faced with so much uncertainty.  I didn’t know I would be at this point but man am I glad I am.  Before the pieces really started to fall into place it was like I was looking at the highway pushing forward on the horizon as it reached a hill.  What was over that hill?  Was I going to like it?  Was it where I wanted to be or expected to be?

The biggest thing I could learn at that point is sometimes you don’t know but you have to trust your gut and just get in that car and head down the road.  That road was about to lead me somewhere, somewhere that would teach me so much I couldn’t even comprehend yet.  So, there I went down the road, the road to today.

About three and a half years ago my career was in question. What was I going to do next? Where was I going to go?  There were a lot of questions.  Some were fueled by the idea that I had already reached the peak.  I probably created unrealistic and unwarranted expectations for myself.

I had already worked an Olympic Games. The 8 year old me would have said I had reached the mountain top. It was my life dream. The 24 old me went to London for several weeks and got to work daily next to the elite of elite level athletes like Sanya Richards Ross, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Diana Taurasi, Tyson Gay, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and many others who were lesser known but at the top of their sports, many decorated with countless medals. They were the best in the world, THE WORLD! It was hard not to pinch myself each day. I could tell stories for hours about my experiences. The opportunity as amazing as it was, and something I will cherish forever, left me with the question, “what is my next step?” I wondered if I had reached as high as I could. I’ve loved sports my entire life, watch them, play them, whatever. I lived and breathed them, all of them.

I decided to leave the Movement, one I took so much pride in, and followed the sport that always left me wanting more, the one I loved. Whether it be being glued to the TV and decked head to toe in Chicago Bulls gear watching Michael Jordan as a kid or eventually pursuing a possible career as a coach, I loved basketball. (For more on my love for basketball be sure to check out I Love This Game)

So naturally, I headed to Chicago to work for a basketball company. I got to a point where I was running a league almost every weeknight and playing in almost every one. I was managing, at least some part, of every bit of the operation.  For almost 2 years that’s what my life became almost entirely, basketball. Night after night hanging with all the different guys of all levels and playing and talking basketball. It was fun. Man, we had a great time and I owe so much to so many of them for giving their time to help me try to make it succeed. I like to think we did a heck of a job with what we had.

If that job taught me one thing, it was being resourceful. I made some great friends. Some even invited me to be on their team to represent Chicago at the National Tournament in Las Vegas. Did My talent level belong on that team? Hell no. But those guys asked me to play with them because of all the time we spent together and that was an honor. Well, I guess if there was one other thing I learned with my job there, it was talking trash. If you want to take a beating verbally on the court go lace up and get on a court in Chicago. The courts there toughened me up a little in a lot of ways.

Over time something in me drew thin. I lost sight of where to go with what I was doing. As much as I loved basketball I wondered if that was all that was going to

My buddy Hudson letting me join his club of Hudson’s Heroes

define me. I always took a lot of pride in being able to learn and do many things. I was no longer seeing the job as my future. I guess I felt like I could offer more to something. The question was that I really didn’t know what that something was. Did I now have the experience to get back in the Olympic Movement and do something more than I had done before or was it time for a new challenge, a new mountain to climb?

Jessica filled with excitement as she got to carry the Flame of Hope for the first time in a Special Olympics ceremony

This is the part of my story that got flipped upside down and I say that because I really had no idea it would take me on the ride to where I am now. I still loved sports and knew there were so many avenues to sports that I could find that missing piece within them. I truly believe sports are one of the most powerful ways to bring people together and push them to reach their goals.  This backstory outlines my passion for sports, all of them, and sets the stage for what was to come.  I was about to find out a new level of the power of sport.

In early 2015 I was offered a position with a different Olympics, Special Olympics. It was a world very unfamiliar to me. It was one I had a couple days’ worth of experience around. Little did I know it would be so diverse and so much to learn.

At first, I was very hesitant about this new opportunity. I wasn’t intimidated by the job or any of that. I was going to be moving back closer to home. In my head I thought I had to be in a big metropolis to succeed in my field. That was all a false fabrication. Besides, success is relative to each and every one of us. I was also afraid if I moved back I wouldn’t be able to leave again.  That’s because I was eager to see the world and that’s many other stories, ones that would become possible over the next few years in ways I also couldn’t foresee.

Special Olympics South Dakota team Christmas card

It’s weird how our minds are so powerful they put these made up fears inside them. The thing about the position I did know, however, was that I would be surrounded by some great people. I knew they cared and they wanted me to join them. The people you work with is 90 percent a part of your success, in my opinion. Working on a great team makes giving that other 10 percent super easy.  I guess in a sports sense I recognized they were projecting up and I was going to win some championships.  So, what did I do? I decided to embrace the opportunity, load up the car again, and head to Special Olympics South Dakota.

Once I was on the team I was ready to learn the ropes and see where I could fit and help do my best to make the organization better.  For the next three years I would learn a vast amount about the world of disabilities and most importantly about what it means to have a world of inclusion. It didn’t matter your background, your skill, your talent, or your ability, you could have an opportunity in some capacity or another with Special Olympics. How remarkable is that?

To see where Special Olympics and Special Olympics South Dakota has come not only in the last few years but the last decade plus blows me away.  Since I have began I have witnessed many great feats.  I’ve seen a Special Olympics athlete deadlift a personal record of 500 pounds.  I’ve seen the country’s first Unify Center be built from the ground up right next to my office and open it’s doors to the community for not only a home for Special Olympics but inclusion as well.  The participation numbers have risen from event to event, breaking records.  The best part is the number of unified partners getting involved.

Mel, Johna, (my coworkers) and I at Johna’s wedding

Most importantly more and more people are getting involved in businesses and organizations and schools are jumping on board to promote the idea of including everyone.  There are so many outstanding things taking place at grassroots levels that show that sports have the power to change the world.

My favorite part of it all was I could show others how great it was. I could encourage people to participate, help out and see it with their own eyes, or teach the world more about what playing and living unified means.  I had found something I may or may not have been looking for with this new journey.  Some say there are 3 P’s to a happy life, passion, pride, and purpose. Special Olympics brought me all three.

Along the way my position has let me use those to further develop my own skills and talents for the mission and how can I not be incredibly thankful for that.  My team let me evolve from competition management and coaches education to exploring new ideas for our digital marketing as well.  I was able to incorporate some of my other passions like photography and videography as well.  I believed it was a way I could help spread message for Special Olympics.  They trusted me.  I was excited for the increased opportunity and away we went!

The tasks of the job seem to be great but that’s not the best part.  The best part though, I have met so many outstanding individuals, all with many different gifts.

My friend and athlete, Scotty

Seeing athletes succeed in their sport and their reactions is truly as pure as it gets.  Now, as July of 2018 approaches I have been a part of 47 Special Olympics South Dakota athletic competitions and each time I get to see many different athletes who are always filled with excitement and quickly ready to say hi and tell about their triumphs.  It’s hard to explain sometimes what being a part of it all is like but it’s one everyone should witness.

My assistant coach Matt and I at the Rivalry Series basketball game. A game promoting unified sports

It goes beyond the athletes as well, the many volunteers and coaches I have been able to encounter and work with has been equally as rewarding in many ways.  Many of them get to work with the athletes way more than I do and their passion to spread the Special Olympics movement is unrivaled.  Many have become great friends.

If I did have one thing in my mind before this all started it is that I saw myself doing something that involved community development through sport.  In many ways that is exactly what Special Olympics is striving for.  Sure, it’s the mission to offer sports opportunities to those with intellectual disabilities but really it goes way beyond that.  Unified Sports is bridging the gaps for those with and without disabilities to come together in an inclusive community.  That’s some powerful stuff.  It’s an exciting time to be a part of it all as opportunities beyond sport are made and acceptance grows.

John coming out to help me celebrate my 30th birthday

For me, I have learned so much in the last three years simply by being able to work with one individual every day at the office.  I’ve gained a new best friend in John.  John has autism.  He is an athlete but he is also much more.  He has helped put me on the fast track to understanding an individual as extraordinary as him and many others.  That firsthand experience has been remarkable and filled with many laughs and moments of awe.  If you haven’t seen my piece called, My Friend John, be sure to check it out.

As for what I am on the verge of being a part of in the future, tomorrow brings something that is an opportunity much like the one in my younger years.  Throughout my life I’ve always liked chasing goals, big or small. For some I seem to set the bar pretty high. When I first heard that USA Games for Special Olympics were going to be in Seattle I was very excited. For one, I have always loved Seattle. Secondly, I knew the time would come where I would get to be part of that team again, like I was with Team USA at the Olympics, except this time with Team South Dakota.  Although there are World Games this had been known to be “the event” for Special Olympics, mainly because Special Olympics was still growing internationally and it started in the US. I was thrilled to know that I could experience this event with Special Olympics and be part of a movement representing so many great and progressive things on such a big stage. It’s the 2018 USA Games!

Now, here I am moments away from joining the 51 athletes who will compete as part of Team South Dakota for a week filled with competition and triumphs. Being part of a team is one of the greatest things.  To see the true sense of pure joy from many of them as they give their best is a feeling that rivals none. Many of these athletes have never flown before, let alone left the state. This is their moment to shine and be a part of something so special.

While this story has been about my journey to this point, I think what catches me most about being where I am is that I now get to help the athletes carry on their stories.  When they step foot in that stadium with Team South Dakota and the many other delegations for Opening Ceremony it will be a moment unlike any other.  These athletes from all over the country will be changing the game and breaking down barriers.

Tomorrow begins the next step in my career but it is much more.  It’s about so many others.  Those others have taught me a lot the last few years and those questions I once had about “what’s next” and “where am I going” are now answered.  That’s “what’s next” has unrolled into a new and unexpected challenge that fuels every day.  That road that seemed uncertain is no longer uncertain.  As for the “where am I going”, I’m going to Seattle, Washington with Team South Dakota for USA Games!

 

Be sure to follow along as I hope to publish daily with updates from USA Games in Seattle and don’t forget to tune in to see Team South Dakota and teams from around the country march in during the Opening Ceremony on Sunday, July 1st at 3:30 pm ET.  #risewithus

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