They are my heroes. These young teenagers who struggle. Watching them compete at a Special Olympics event is deeply moving. Just seeing these wonderful and endearing kids put forth the most sincere effort I have ever seen is inspiring. Even when they are in wheelchairs or grappling with other severe disabilities, they have just as much enthusiasm as typical kids competing in a sporting event. Maybe even more.
My son Trot, who just turned 20, is one of these special needs Olympians. My sense is that he and the other competitors want to feel normal, to be seen as typical kids delighting in competing against friends at a sporting event. They may even appreciate the opportunity to do this more than a typical kid might, based on their exuberance and energy. They have passion, gumption, drive, enthusiasm and competitiveness. It seems that they get a lot of pride from competing and being recognized by others who cheer them on as they navigate their disabilities. It doesn’t matter what team they are on, or what school they attend; everybody cheers for everybody.
I admit I don’t know all of this for sure; most of them, including my son, don't have the ability to articulate their feelings. But after attending seemingly countless such events over the years, to root for my son and the others, I can see the pride and desire to compete on their faces.
For them, accolades are special, singular recognition that light up their world; there is nothing routine or expected about the awards or trophies they might take home. Every ounce of recognition that they receive is celebrated by these youngsters and their families. And, as often is the case with special needs kids, they want to hear about their events over and over and over — so even more pleasure comes in the retelling of their achievements and the continual celebration of their feats.
For these young special needs athletes, Special Olympic events are their opportunities to shine. They wait at the gate, well before starting time, anxious for each event to begin. At my son’s last competition, there was one little girl — probably 12 or 13 — standing at the gate anxiously, impatiently waiting her turn. I’ve developed the ability to read the facial expressions of many special needs kids over the years and I could sense that she was fearful of being overlooked and missing her event. “When is my time? When is my time?” she kept asking, despite her parents promising her she was five events away and her time would come.
Competing in the Special Olympics puts a normal face on something that is extremely challenging — and when I say challenging, I mean these kids have real and serious challenges. Usually, I'm constantly thinking of Trot's future, but, for that small slice of time, everything seems normal — I am absorbed in the competition, just like Trot.
The last Special Olympics event that Trot would ever participate in at this age level occurred about three weeks ago. I was happy — and sad, a blend of emotions I often encounter as the dad of a special needs son. When you get there and take in the atmosphere — the pageantry, the color, the crowd, the smiling faces, the cheering and the sea of kids running around — you can’t help but be happy. It is so uplifting.
I’ve watched University of Alabama football for years. I have seen America’s finest collegiate athletes up close — in their prime and in their greatness. Yet, nothing I have witnessed rooting for my beloved Crimson Tide moved me more than what I saw at Trot’s last Olympics. I saw a small boy, probably about 14, who, before the event, was incapable of controlling his arms, legs and head. He was severely disabled. But that all changed once his race began.
This young man somehow burst into the lead, even as his body flailed. You could tell he was giving it everything he had, trying desperately to control his legs. He was relentless, he was determined, he would not be denied. He captivated the crowd. Coaches ran ahead to cheer him on along the sidelines. He finished third in the race. He finished first in everyone’s hearts. He is who I will takeaway from Trot’s last Special Olympics, another powerful face in a chain of heroes I have come to know over the years.
At these events, you can get a Coke or a hot dog, just like you can at any typical high school sporting event. For those few moments, all is right with the world. It is funny how the idea of just getting a Coke can make everything right in the world, but that normalcy is what I crave. This normalcy, even though it’s largely momentary, is something that makes me happy.
On the other hand, I feel sad. Trot will be leaving this family of friends, as will my wife Anne and I. We are moving on to the next age group of competitors, leaving his teenage years behind. For years, he has competed against the same group of kids and we have gotten to know and love many of these other young people and their families. But now that’s going to change because my son is going into a whole new age division with new people.
“We are going to miss Trotter,” other adults said to me as I passed them in the stands. They mean well but this dose of reality is a reminder that this phase of his life is ending. And I can’t help but be discomforted.
We don’t really know what to expect with the new level of competition. There is a whole world out there of older kids and adults, new families, perhaps more intense competition, perhaps more gifted special needs athletes. How will I deal with these changes? How will these changes affect Trot? Familiarity and predictability are so important to the well-being of a special needs child and now, he, Anne and I will journey hand in hand into a new world. Trot will lead us, I suspect, as he always does.
My definition of a hero is someone who inspires me to do better. I have never seen any special needs kids complain or cry when competing. They are just so grateful to be a part of something bigger and meaningful by way of the Special Olympics. If you put your problems up against those who are significantly challenged, and see how they overcome those challenges, yours don’t seem so daunting.
I will miss my “heroes” — those remarkable young teens who wait impatiently for their events to begin and then give it their all, pushing themselves to the limit, reveling in their successes.
They never seem afraid; they never seem conflicted; they always seem determined. These are the lessons one learns from heroes. Now, it’s time to move on.