Choosing to Include: The USA Games Experience

Choosing to Include

The USA Games Experience

The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.  There doesn’t seem to be one adjective that truly describes what they are or what they have been like for the many athletes, coaches, and fans attending.  They have been filled with moments that will become memories, ones cherished for the rest of life.  They are moments filled with joy, laughter, tears, and excitement.  They are also ones filled with friendship, pride, and growth.For many athletes, the USA Games in Seattle were their first time traveling away from home or competing in an event of that magnitude.  This was my first time attending USA Games so I didn’t quite know what to expect.  When Team South Dakota departed for Seattle a week ago I sat next to athlete on the plane named Blake.  It was Blake’s first time flying and attending the Games.  Now as we are flying home we are sitting next to each other again.  He is now wearing a gold medal

Blake repping his new gold medal on the flight home

around his neck that he won in softball.  How many people really get to do that?  I know I never have and probably never will.  That in itself defines exactly what the opportunity to compete on the national stage is.  Blake wears the medal because he is proud of his accomplishment.  He just won a gold medal competing in a sport he loves at a competition made up of nearly 4000 competitors.  That’s amazing!Blake tells me that his medal will hang on his wall when he gets home.  He will see it hanging every day.  It will remind him of his team’s triumph but it will remind him of so much more as well.  He will look back on all the moments of the Games, not just the times competing but the time he walked into Opening Ceremony amongst those 4000 other athletes or the times with his teammates in the dorm hall.  There will be memories he created with new friends and those memories will bring back a feeling, a special one.

The basketball team enjoying some Space Needle views of Seattle

Now that I have been able to witness a USA Games I realize more about what is at the core of this Special Olympics Movement.  The USA Games simply amplify it.  The concept of inclusion and acceptance is a heartbeat heard around the country on this stage and is spreading to all areas of the globe.  I envision the many athletes of all ages from everywhere putting in the time to learn a sport or hone in on one they have been working on their whole life.  For some it’s the opportunities they are now getting at their school to be part of a sport and for others it’s the small competitions within Special Olympics that lead to state competitions.  For some, like Blake, it is now being able to be a part of, not only a competition, but an experience at the national stage.  His story started at that small level years ago and now he is part of leading with his peers to change the game.

When the past week started I had a pretty good feeling I was going to witness and experience some things that would move me.  When you are in it all it’s sometimes hard to process everything that is going on.  Some things hit you right away while others flood in like a dam breaking after.  As I reflect on the past week I’m able to think about everything that transpired.  Each time I dig more into it all, I can’t help but find myself smiling or chuckling.  These are now my memories from a remarkable week.Seattle was an incredible host for these Games of inclusion and provided six days of wonderful memories for so many.  That’s what gets me.  All those athletes and coaches and families and fans that had an experience of a lifetime.  How will they remember it all?  How will it change them?  How much does it mean to them?  It makes me sit and wonder how their growth will go on to make the awareness and opportunities spread more for those with and without intellectual disabilities.I wish I could sit here and tell everyone about everyone’s story but I can only try my best to enlighten everyone with what I saw, what I felt, what I experienced, and what I learned.  I can tell you how each time I heard softball athlete, Chris, his excitement invigorated me.  It was contagious.  When he looked out the window as the team flew into Seattle and each “Wow!” and “So Cool!” (dozens and dozens of them) brought a smile to my face.  His energy radiated throughout the entire week.  It was an experience he loved so much.  It was the same as when he opened the letter that told him he was selected to participate.  How can one not be motivated by that?

Nicole excited after her team’s championship game

How about the waves of fans lining the walkway as each delegation made their way to the stadium?  Each one of them offered a high five and cheered everyone on.  Then walking into the stadium and how incredible it felt to be part of Team South Dakota.  It was very special.  I was super proud to come out of that tunnel with them.  I can’t imagine how everyone else felt.  It was an instant rush, one so special I knew would stand the test of time.  Everyone recognizing Tim Shriver, the son of Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and making sure to get

Casey, Skylar, and I passing the flag over our heads during Opening Ceremony

a high five or shake his hand.  Then later finding out Mel (my boss) and Brian (bocce coach) got a selfie with him was super cool to hear because of how much they have put into Special Olympics and truly embody it.I think the Opening Ceremony was when it really hit me how special the opportunity was.  Each moving speech, each glance around at the others around me, and concerted effort not to show the emotion filling my face (yes, the moments where tears wanted to leave my eyes) was when it clicked.  It was something so raw and joyous that was beginning for the week that would ensue and one I wish everyone could experience.  It was the start of something very inclusive with those around me.I can tell you about all the friendships that were made.  Running into athletes after being separated by hours of the day and each of them greeting a hello, one as though you were friends for years.  Some were old friends and some were brand new in those moments.  Simply all being part of the same team forged friendships not just for me, but for many others.  It was an amazing team experience.  There were even the hellos from athletes from many other states.  For me personally, I cherish every bit of that because I don’t get the opportunity be around the athletes as much directly, aside from area and state competitions.  I love being able to ask them if they are having fun and try to hype them up.Some new friends who started the week shy and bashful but by the end telling stories and eager to talk.  There was Cole (basketball) who I would try and try to get to talk

Team South Dakota walking to Opening Ceremony

throughout the week and to see how he gained more confidence each day.  There was also Skylar (basketball), also young like Cole, who came into the experience a bit overwhelmed in the early days, especially at the Opening Ceremony.  He had his head in his hands sitting inside that stadium of thousands of people.  I asked him, “How cool is this to be here?” Perhaps it was my reassurance, but within moments seeing him enjoying it all and then each encounter each day after was great to see as he was enjoying every minute of the Games.  Nicole (basketball) who seemed to like to keep to herself at the beginning but by the end hanging around many new friends and being social and instead of me initiating a hello it was her.

Part of Team South Dakota enjoying a Seattle Mariners baseball game

The amount of growth of so many was inspiring.  How about Noah (softball) who is terrified of heights and his coach helping him face his fear?  Next thing, he is sitting in the 3rd level of Safeco Field with the field far below and he is appreciating a game of baseball that he loves without fear.  There was the playful jabbing at Casey (basketball) to dance during Opening Ceremony and then next thing he is twirling Alayna on the purple carpet and soon joined by many of his teammates.   So many athletes faced fears of change each day as schedules may not be set or changed.  For some, new places and no routine was very difficult but seeing them adapt on the fly was amazing to see, even if at times challenging.Then there were the friendships that strengthened as the week went on.  Some of my favorite moments were with some of the athletes I had at least some history with.  It truly made me happy to see athletes like Adrianna (athletics) grow by

Adrianna and I cheering on the basketball team

having the opportunity at the Games.  Her coaches would tell of how each day she made new friends from other states.  Her positive attitude and support for all of her teammates warmed the heart.  I think back to the day she was selected to attend in front of her teachers and staff and how emotional it was for her.  To know how much it meant for her is touching.  I for one, really appreciate the time I got to be her chaperone for a couple hours and watch the traditional basketball team play. Then there was the short scare that she had to mistakenly run within minutes.  Even then her attitude towards it was very accepting and positive.  I think that is some of the stuff that really made me appreciate my opportunity to be there will every one of the 51 athletes and 17 coaches/staff of Team South Dakota.

Swimming Team after winning a bronze in the relay

I think about my experiences at the Game with my friends John and Dominick.  John letting me challenge him at the 4th of July celebration which was not really his environment.  When he let me tell him we should take a lap around the activities and then joining me.   Even though he grabbed my wrist and dragged me around so he could complete the task I realized that we had a great friendship.  He wouldn’t do that to anyone.  Heck, we even stopped for a minute and he did his side-to-side dance.  I was proud of him.Dominick (bocce) and I, on the other hand, had a friendship that entailed seeing each other at events and him telling

Dominick in the middle of bocce competition

me to behave every time he saw me.  I’m not sure if he said that once to me during this past week.  It went to show how much our friendship grew.  I learned how much he appreciated me as a friend, at one point wondering where I was to watch him compete and another making sure I sat next to him.  He is one I could joke around with for hours and I appreciate the many we did just that together.  All of the gestures he gave during bocce competition always made all of us chuckle and I know many were very proud to see Dominick win.The five days seeing each and every one of these 51 compete was an experience now engrained in my mind for life.  Whether it be seeing Bruce (basketball) running up and down the court with a smile a mile wide or Tim (softball) mentoring many of the younger players on the field, the experiences of being around Team South Dakota were a sample of showing just how great Special Olympics is.

Cole very excited about his team’s play

One of my favorite experiences of the week was being around Team South Dakota’s first Interscholastic Unified Basketball Team(team of 5 athletes and 5 unified partners).  It was extraordinary to see each and every one of them grow as friends throughout the week.   The team comprised of individuals of, basically high school age, coming together as a team in truly unified fashion was a sight to see and a concept for us all to accept and learn.  The unified partners who gained such a new understanding through the whole experience.  It makes me excited to see how they go forth and help continue the growth of this movement at the school level.Following the team throughout the week made so many people very proud and one the whole state of South Dakota is proud of.  I enjoyed watching the many proud family members, even seeing Xander’s brother, who is a Special Olympics athlete, at each game.  It was great seeing how thrilled he was to see Xander and his teammates, often providing hugs to all.  There were the many moments running into Dylan’s mom throughout the games and hearing her enthusiasm to be there.  It″ alt=”” width=”300″ height=”279″ dylan and his mom after team gold medal win>

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Interscholastic Unified Basketball team receiving their gold medals

energized each of us and was most apparent during her son’s basketball games.  It meant the world to her to see her son play with his team.  I’ll never forget seeing the tears of joy Dylan and his mom shared when his team won gold.  Those were the moments that mean the world and demonstrate the power of sport and what they can do for so many.  They were the ones that sent chills down my spine and raised the hair on my neck.  Those moments touched so many.Choose to include is a slogan for Special Olympics and the message is a driving force for what the movement aims to accomplish.  I look back on the week and see so many of Team South Dakota doing just that, none more perhaps than the bocce teammates.  Watching young unified partners like Tea and Kaylee embrace every single bit of what Special Olympics is and aims to be and living it was amazing to watch.  They truly played and lived unified the entire week with Dominick and Mallory, even inviting each other to see the city with their families.

Addison, Tea, and Megan celebrating

It didn’t stop there.  Hearing the many coaches tell stories about their athletes and trying to do things that went beyond the

Noah, Anthony, Derick, and Blake enjoying some 4th of July fun

competition arena.  Whether it be going for ice cream or visiting the Space Needle or spending time in the Fan Zone and taking selfies, they were no longer coaches, they were building friendships.  That was is what it is about.  Amy telling of how much she loved her softball team and spending time with them and giving each other nicknames or the athletics athletes and coaches spending nearly every minute together.   There was the week long time spent with Chris as a roommate and him tell stories of his team and their bonds and victories.  Then seeing the interactions he would have with his athletes further showed his passion creating an inclusive playing field.  It went for all of the coaches and what it meant for them to be there with their teams.All of these moments, brief or extended, and all of the experiences, not only I had with others, but that everyone shared, were every great adjective one can think of.  The entire week with the team from South Dakota was something different than anything I had experienced before.  It was something bigger, something better.  Looking back on it all I wonder about the collective amount of all of “it”, what makes USA Games and Special Olympics, and think Team South Dakota was just a small piece of the pie.  There were thousands of people to experience some part of “it”.  To think that each one of those individuals could spread that passion and inspiration exponentially is unbelievable.

The softball team meeting a familiar face

The USA Games were about the athletes and their mission to elevate the world to a new place, one where everyone chooses to include.  It is the concept of choosing to include others no matter their disability but also no matter their background.  When Mr. Shriver asked the athletes to show the world what it looks like to lead with the heart at Opening Ceremony I truly believe after this past week that every one of them did just that.  They showed America what it means to respect each other and to choose to include.  They were all leaders.The 2018 USA Games.  It was an experience where the powerful music wasn’t needed to pull at the heartstrings.  It was just felt through everyone.  It was in every feat accomplished, in every dance of celebration, in every high five, in every laugh or yell of joy, or in every hug and tear. It was shared by many, many people from around the country.  It was one where there was no exclusion, only togetherness and unity.  Within the environment of USA Games was nothing but love.  That’s incredibly powerful.  It was about everyone including each other.  It was Choosing to Include.

Dominick and I

Thank you Adrianna, Sam, Chana, Tanner, Mallory, Gary, Joe, Tea, Matt, Kaylee, Dominick, Denelle, Jacob, Eva, Derrick, Kyle, Mike, Josh, Chad, Anthony, Luke, Jody, Noah, Tim, Chris, Blake, David, John, Megan, Kent, Addison, Garet, Taylor, Sarah, Aaron, Skylar, Casey, Jasmine, Wade, Jon, Bruce, Caleb, Kellen, Alayna, Nicole, Darah, Dylan, Cole, Xander, Gavan, Kyler, Chris, Amanda, Laurie, Chad,  Rich, Cathy, Mel, Amy, Mary, James, Deb, Johna, Brian, Peggy, Missy, and Brandon!

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