"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." – The athlete oath of Special Olympics, which are words attributed to Roman gladiators before entering the arena.
If ever there was a Warrior Woman, it was Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Her vision and passionate commitment to fighting for inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities exemplifies the “Warrior Spirit.” As a woman in the 1960s, championing the rights of this underserved community, Shriver met with resistance and great challenge, yet it is said affectionately of Shriver, "She would see a 'no' as a challenge to destroy the opposition.” And so she did.
The first Special Olympics Games – held in Chicago in 1968 – were the realization of a dream for Shriver. The Games proved to the world that individuals with intellectual disabilities could compete on the track, in the pool and on the field like any athlete – and they could win. Shriver believed passionately that sports were the great equalizer between people with or without intellectual differences. She believed through athletic competition, common ground could be cultivated across a wide spectrum of intellectual capacity to prove the voracity of her constant refrain: "They're just like anyone else.”
Shriver charged through other people’s perceptions of what they thought was “different” about those living with intellectual disabilities. She held a torch aloft for families to embrace the camaraderie of athletic competition. The bold flame she ignited lit many a path for athletes and their families to find community through competition. She carved a path from her Camp Shriver to today's global Special Olympics World Games.
I encourage each of us to look in the eyes of community members with intellectual differences and simply "ask" them. “Engage” them. Recognize they indeed are, as Shriver said, "Just like anyone else."
People with intellectual disabilities are not lesser. In fact, they are extraordinary. They are warriors! They are "competitors," battlers, scrappers! They are role models of kindness, decency, friendship and love. They are often the possessors of the purest light in humanity.
Big Show is one of my favorite Superstars to work alongside. He never makes visits in the community about himself or his celebrity; he instead shines a spotlight on everyday heroes. Big Show's heart for others fits the size of his body. He was recognized by Special Olympics for his extraordinary service and proudly displayed the acknowledgment in his office. A visiting friend saw the honor, paused, and after some reflection said, "People with intellectual disabilities are new souls ... the rest of us are old ones. These new souls are too pure, too kind, too loving and too honest. They have not yet been corrupted by the evils in life – jealousy, envy, greed. They are still so full of light and love."
I marveled over the story Big Show shared. I wondered if this explained the ability of Special Olympics athletes' to want the gold, work diligently to achieve it, and yet still enthusiastically cheer for the competitors one lane over.
Disabled? I don't think so ...
... Capable in extraordinary ways seems more like it.
Big Show said he would never look at Special Olympics athletes in exactly the same way again after the description of their purity and spirit. Having stood next to our resident giant at a Play Unified event in Orlando, Fla., and countless other community events, it’s clear he possesses the light and love, as well as genuine understanding of spirit, that crushes bias against disabilities the way he does his opponents.
The description of purity and goodness connects with the champions I was fortunate enough to help WWE celebrate. This July, as part of Special Olympics’ Celebrating Champions month, I had the privilege of spending a day with three athletes – JJ, a swimmer; Norris, a powerlifter; and Cornell, a speed skater.
When I met JJ’s mother, she could hardly contain her tears summing up her son as "a blessing.” Norris' dad glowed speaking of the "role model" Norris is for his nieces, nephews and the community. I saw the fire in Cornell's mom's eyes as she called her son, "my everything."
How can any of this be categorized in a way other than exceptional?
Let's get rid of the word “disability.” Let's change the perception of disability and show it as merely a difference. Intellectual differences are small in comparison to our sameness.
In Pittsburgh at a local community center, JJ and I shared an immediate connection through our affinity for music. He loaned me one ear bud with Kool & the Gang blasting and let me show him dance moves I learned as a girl in jazz dance class. JJ offered some of his lunch and bear-hugged me with affection that matched his size. Watching JJ's athletic ability on the basketball court, in the swimming pool and at the track proved Eunice Kennedy Shriver's assertion about athletes on the sports field. JJ displayed the tenacity of a true champion from start to finish. After a long day, JJ's eyes longing to close, he still sat patiently with his brand of quiet grace, answering questions past the five I'd promised.
In Nashville, Tenn., Norris looked me straight in the eye and told me how sorry he was for the loss of Warrior. His eyes never wavered holding mine. There was no "disability" in his apt delivery of compassion. Beyond his capacity to understand loss, he did not want to stay in a sad moment that would define our time together! It was no surprise I'd cheered the loudest as he displayed his powerlifting skills and talent at the Talon School of Fitness under the guidance of his coaches. He even inspired me to get my warrior girl on and push a sled that greatly outweighed me.
In Washington, D.C., Cornell displayed his quiet leadership. This soft spoken 17-year-old attacked the ice with determination, rising, in two years, from his first step onto ice to standing on the highest podium in Austria, winning gold at the Special Olympics World Winter Games.
Although Cornell's gold medals are proud representations of all he worked to accomplish, his easy smile paints his face when discussing the contribution he makes to his community. Cornell expressed his desire to make positive choices so kids looking up to him can be inspired to do the same. Clearly reflective of how his deeds inspire others, Cornell is a thoughtful steward to his family, friends and other athletes who watch his contagious excitement and can-do attitude. Cornell's gentle eyes alongside his almost wolfish grin tell a story you can't wait to read as chapters unfold with the best ones yet to be written.
The opportunity to introduce the WWE Universe to athletes like JJ, Norris and Cornell is an honor. There are countless remarkable traits each champion exhibits. A common characteristic I observed is the living of a creed my late husband assigned his daughters, "Live Strong. Act Bold. Be Brave. Nothing's too hard to do. ALWAYS BELIEVE."
Eunice Kennedy Shriver had it right when she said, "They're just like anyone else.”
But I believe it could be argued that these champions are EXTRAordinary!