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Celebrating Special Olympics athletes Jennifer Wardlow and Zach Commander

Jennifer Wardlow from Winston-Salem, N.C.

Jennifer Wardlow took her involvement with Special Olympics far beyond participating as an athlete. As one of Special Olympics’ first and most passionate Athlete Leaders, Wardlow took the skills and confidence she gained on the playing field to become a prominent voice and leader within the movement.

Wardlow served two terms as a member of the Special Olympics North Carolina Board of Directors. She is a member of the Special Olympics North Carolina Athlete Council, which meets to discuss athlete-related issues with the president of the organization.

She is not only a Special Olympics Global Messenger (athlete trained and certified in public speaking on behalf of the Special Olympics movement), but she was also selected to serve a term as one of only 12 International Sargent Shriver Global Messengers. In her role as a Global Messenger, Wardlow has spent the past eight years using her public speaking talents to promote dignity, respect and acceptance of those with intellectual disabilities to people around the world. 

Wardlow was given the honor of welcoming hundreds of delegates to the Special Olympics North America Leadership Conference in 2013 at the opening function. And in 2014, she was one of three Special Olympics North Carolina athletes appointed as athlete ambassadors to the North Carolina Law Enforcement Torch Run Council. The governing body oversees the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics, one of the largest grassroots awareness and fundraising efforts in Special Olympics. 

Wardlow is a certified athletics (track and field) coach and has also served as an athletics official during state-level Special Olympics competitions. She has competed in athletics, basketball, speed skating, bowling, softball and Alpine skiing since she got involved with Special Olympics more than 20 years ago. In 2012, she was one of only 12 athletes from around the world selected to play in the inaugural Special Olympics — NBA Cares Unified basketball game, alongside current and former NBA and WNBA stars. 

 

Zach Commander from Elizabeth City, N.C.

To say Zach Commander is a Special Olympics veteran would be an understatement. In his 29 years in Special Olympics, he has competed in numerous sports, and currently competes in soccer, basketball, volleyball and Alpine skiing.

“I began [in Special Olympics] when I was 12 years old,” Commander said. “And boy has it ever had a positive impact on my life. Special Olympics has defined who I am today. I couldn’t talk or walk until I was 5 years old. I was told I was ‘slow’ and that made me self-conscious and afraid. Special Olympics showed me I was just as good as others and that I could accomplish anything I wanted to. After my first competition, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I held my head high and have been living that way ever since. Special Olympics taught me to stand tall, walk tall and be proud!”

He has competed at the local and state levels and was one of only 12 athletes around the world selected to be a member of the International Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg team at the 2011 Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece. During the Final Leg, he completed all the running segments and delivered powerful speeches at awareness-raising events throughout Greece. He says he returned with a greater understanding of Special Olympics as a worldwide movement. 

Commander was one of Special Olympics North Carolina’s first athlete leaders. He began in Special Olympics’ Athlete Leadership Program and has held an array of leadership roles along the way, making him one of the movements most experienced and dynamic athlete leaders.

Commander is a Special Olympics Global Messenger — athletes who are trained in public speaking and advocacy on behalf of the Special Olympics movement. He has completed advanced training in this area and now serves as a trainer for new Global Messengers in North Carolina. He has spoken to countless corporate and civic groups since 1993, when he first became a Global Messenger. He has delivered speeches at local and state-level meetings and fundraisers, in front dignitaries such as the North Carolina lieutenant governor and the attorney general, and has given numerous television and newspaper interviews. 

Currently, Commander is serving a three-year term as a member of the Special Olympics North Carolina Board of Directors. He also serves on the Special Olympics North Carolina Athlete Council — a forum for athletes to voice their views on Special Olympics, represent the needs and concerns of their fellow athletes, and make policy recommendations to other Special Olympics leaders. 

He represented the United States at the 2010 Special Olympics Athlete Congress in Morocco, and in 2014, he was appointed to the Special Olympics North Carolina Law Enforcement Torch Run Council. Commander was also the only athlete in 2012 to raise funds and then actually go “Over the Edge” and rappel 30 stories off a skyscraper in Raleigh, N.C., as part of a fundraiser for Special Olympics North Carolina.

Outside Special Olympics, Commander is an advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He serves on both the local and state Department of Health & Human Resources Consumer Family Advisory committees. Commander works at Ruby Tuesday’s in Elizabeth City, and he loves to sing in his community choir.

A father of three (ages 20, 15 and 7), one of his proudest moments was when he and his son won gold medals on the same volleyball team at the 2008 Special Olympics North Carolina State Summer Games.

This year, Commander has been chosen for a high honor: He is one of the three athlete co-captains for the Special Olympics Unified Relay Across America.

“It’s a very big honor for me to be chosen and represent my state, but also the athletes throughout America. My hope is that the relay will strengthen the Special Olympics movement by bringing all athletes and the public together. It will bring Special Olympics closer to the communities across America. The more people we involved and the more funds we raise …" Commander said. "It’s like a light bulb: With all those things coming together, it will brighten our Special Olympics movement. The public’s participation will show athletes that people out there care about us and want to help us achieve our goals. The relay will make people aware of Special Olympics and bring us all together. We’ll be unified as we run and people will realize we’re all very similar.”

Follow Commander and the Special Olympics Unified Relay Across America at www.unifiedrelay.org.

WWE Celebrates the accomplishments of Special Olympics legend Loretta Claiborne this February in honor of Black History Month. WWE served as the Official Production Partner of the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games.

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