Biography: Tim Shriver is the Chairman of Special Olympics. Under his leadership, the Special Olympics has recruited over 2 million new athletes, and started the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® -The world’s largest public health screening and education program for people with intellectual disabilities.
The Special Olympics extends beyond the “games” it’s most commonly known for. (Eg project search, to help find meaningful employment.) How has that worked so far?
Special Olympics has evolved and grown at a rapid pace over the past 13 years to keep up with the many needs of people with intellectual disabilities We introduced Healthy Athletes in 1997 and now Special Olympics is the world’s largest public health provider for people with intellectual disabilities. We also launched school curriculum in 2001 and for the past four years the U.S. Department of Education has been supporting our Special Olympics Project UNIFY strategy which build leadership and acceptance in schools using Special Olympics sports and activities. We’ve added programs for Young Athletes (ages 2-7) and we have been expanding our Special Olympics Unified Sports efforts so that more people have a chance to play with and learn from our athletes. I’d say that our growth and expanded programming is working out great.
Your blog – often a call to arms – how can Yungpost respond to that call and help?
Everyone can take action to create acceptance and social justice. It can be as simple as saying hello to someone who is different or inviting them to lunch. You can take a pledge to not say the r-word. www.r-word.org or even better – explain to someone why using the R-word is hurtful to those with intellectual disabilities. Speaking up for what right takes guts and grit, but is extremely impactful. I encourage everyone to take action by treating others how you would want to be treated, and taking a stand when someone is not treated justly, fairly or with respect.
What has been your most rewarding experience while being involved with Special Olympics?
I am asked this question often and it is difficult to pick one experience. The fact that there are so many experiences that are powerful is what is rewarding.
Do you have a favorite story of how the Special Olympics changed a person’s life?
Again, it is so difficult to think of a favorite story, but one story does come to mind as I think back to amazing moments I have witnessed at Special Olympics that changed me.
Over the years I’ve learned that some of these gutty, courageous, confidence-inspired performances come from the most unlikely competitors. And the most incredible one I’ve witnessed, came from a Special Olympics athlete in a wheelchair with significant physical challenges. His physical abilities were such that he couldn’t communicate verbally, couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t perform even basic physical tasks without herculean effort.
The setting was the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Ireland. At these Games, Special Olympics unveiled the Motor Activities Training Program (MATP), designed for people with significant limitations who don’t yet possess the physical skills necessary to participate in traditional Olympic-type sports.
Examples of MATP activities include the “bean bag lift,” the “ball kick,” or the “log roll.” As you might expect, the focus is less on competition, and more on training, progress and participation. MATP is designed to give individuals with significant challenges the opportunity to participate in Special Olympics while reminding whole communities that no limitation is too great to suppress the desire of the human spirit.
Nonetheless, one might not expect MATP to be a compelling spectator sport. But how wrong! While the activities undertaken are, by themselves, fairly unremarkable, the displays of courage, grit, determination are anything but.
But as Chairman of Special Olympics, I confess that I was nervous about how the public would respond to an event showcasing the abilities of MATP athletes. However, at the World Games the public caught on quickly to the idea that there was something happening at the MATP venue that was worth seeing. Word spread and lines to get into the venue steadily increased. By the end of the second day there was a two hour wait to get inside. But by the time I went to the venue on the third day of the Games, it was packed to the rafters with over 1,500 spectators, with a line of hundreds more outside waiting to get in.
Out came the first participant in a wheelchair and clearly of extremely limited mobility. His activity was the “beanbag lift”, where the goal is to move a beanbag across a tray attached to his motorized wheelchair. Grasp the beanbag, lift it, move it from one side to the other.
The crowd hushed as his name was announced and he was readied by his coach so that his hand was positioned on the tray within reaching distance of the beanbag. The coach whispered a word of encouragement in his ear, and then stepped aside as the clock started to time his performance.
The first minute passed in silence as he tried to get his fingers to grasp the beanbag. Fifteen hundred people emotionally pulled for this young man as he struggled to accomplish something most of us take for granted thousands of times every day as we reach for a cup of coffee, or the phone, or a pen.
Halfway through the second minute, the silence was broken by a spectator who yelled out, like the golf fan who can’t contain their excitement after a putt: “Come on now!” he screamed, as the crowd began to murmur in kind with encouragement.
By the third minute, his hand still had yet to grasp the beanbag, but the crowd picked up its volume with every inch of progress made by his uncooperative fingers. And when he finally grasped the beanbag after three full minutes of concentration and effort, the auditorium erupted.
For the next fifteen minutes, as he labored to move the beanbag from one side of the tray to the other, the crowd didn’t let up. As the spectators willed him on, he willed on his body, until finally, after 18 minutes had expired on the clock, he had completed the exercise. As he dropped the beanbag on its target, the noise from the crowd was deafening, and the look on his face was one of total exhaustion, but exhilaration.
Never before had I seen a person risk more, expend more, or leave more of themselves on the court than this young man on that morning. The courage and confidence he displayed, in getting in front of a crowd that included the President of his country, to perform a task that any one of those watching could have done in 3 seconds, despite knowing that it would take him 15 minutes or more, was hard to fathom.
He didn’t know how the crowd would react when he stepped out to be the center of their attention. They could have pitied him, cringed at the time it took for him to complete his activity, felt embarrassed for him. But despite all of the risks, he wanted his chance, he was ready to compete, he had a desire that could not be stopped.
All he could do was give it everything he had, and as a result, there was no pity, no turned eyes, no embarrassment. On the contrary, he had his moment and he claimed it. No one could doubt that they had been in the presence of a champion. They were inspired by him, uplifted by the fact that he possessed the confidence and desire to leave it all on the court.
There is a saying that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. For Special Olympics, the reveal can often be as much about the spectators as it is the athletes. In this case, my experience that day in Ireland revealed something within me that I was often reluctant to admit, which was that even after a lifetime of involvement in Special Olympics, there was a part of me that was always apprehensive in telling the story of our movement. What would others think? Would they be silently dismissive of our athletes and our work? Would they judge us as (at worst) irrelevant and (at best) nice but unimportant? There was something in me that was always fearful of what others would think.
But in the 18 minutes that it took that athlete to complete his activity, I was changed. I arrived that day anxious and apprehensive about what others would think, but I left that heroic performance worried no more. The power in the room wasn’t in the shouts of the crowd; it wasn’t in the long lines outside the venue; it wasn’t even in the presence of the President of the country. It was in the athlete himself. He didn’t worry. He wasn’t deterred by a lifetime’s worth of struggle. He didn’t stay home because of fear of being judged.
He was brave, willing, real. He went within, found his strength, felt no limits.
I try to take his energy to my family, to my colleagues, to those I meet. Sometimes, I still wonder whether others are judging me and my message. But when I feel that, I remind myself of that performance in Ireland. It may take 18 minutes or 18 days or 18 years — but somehow, I know the strength of the human spirit will win.
Biography: Puk Chi Yeung is a full-time taxi driver who in his spare time rows for the Hong Kong Rowing Paralympic Team. He won gold at the Asian Rowing Championships in 2007 and bronze at the Asian Paralympic Games in 2010.
How did you find out about the opportunity to join the Paralympics Rowing Program?
Originally, I actually participated in the kayaking program located beside the rowing program. One day, while kayaking on the river, I saw the rowing program and wanted a new challenge. I wanted to try something new, so I decided to join the Paralympics Rowing Program.
Can you describe in more detail about the Paralympics Rowing Program?
In rowing, there is solo rowing, 2 man rowing, 4 man rowing and 8 man rowing. As a Paralympics rowing athlete, we are allocated to which type of rowing depending on our physical condition.
What have you learned and experienced from this rowing opportunity?
First off, rowing has helped my health and fitness. This is extremely important, as my lack of movement opportunity due to my physical disability, along with my disability causing my muscles to weaken faster than normal people if not worked, makes it all the more vital that I play sports. Also, this opportunity has given me a sense of pride and confidence. I can forever say that I represented Hong Kong in an international competition. Lastly, the opportunity to travel worldwide to attend tournaments has open my perspective towards the world outside Hong Kong and allowed me to meet people from all over the world.
Can you please elaborate more on your experience competing overseas?
I was able to visit many countries including England, Germany, and Korea. While there, I felt like I was part of a greater community. Everyone there could relate to each other, as we all suffered from physical or mental disabilities, but were able to overcome them and become Paralympic athletes. Furthermore, I was able to make many life long friends that to this day I still keep in touch with. But most importantly, the organizers of these events made us feel as if we were professional athletes, not just disabled people playing sports. They offered us great eating, and living conditions, and made us feel important and respected. This really helped boost my self-esteem and confidence!
Can you talk about how you balance your life between your full time job being a taxi driver and being a Paralympian?
Being a taxi driver is perfect for me! I have flexible hours, and can stop my taxi for a few hours during the working day if necessary to come here and row. This unique relationship cannot be offered by office jobs, where I would have to sit at a desk for the whole day. So although I earn less money when I take time off from work to come row, it is totally worth it getting the opportunity to row, to improve my health, and most importantly to have fun. Lastly, driving a taxi requires a lot of energy and focus. Often after rowing, instead of feeling tired from the workout, I feel energized from the happiness of playing the sport I love.
What have you learnt while rowing that you have brought into your daily life?
The most important thing I have learnt is how rowing has changed my life around. I realized that sports can impact all areas of my life, and can have a profound impact on my happiness, confidence, and outlook on life. In the last few years, many of my other disabled friends after hearing my experience have also taken up rowing or other sports as a way to improve their life.
The following interview was conducted over the telephone with Mr. Wong
Biography: Mr. Wong is a teacher at Zheng Sheng College (only drug rehabilitation school in Hong Kong, which uses basketball and track&field to rehabilitate its students)
How did you become involved with Zheng Sheng College?
I was introduced to Zheng Sheng College by one of the school’s administrator. Throughout my life, I have attended and later helped many different drug rehabilitation centers in Hong Kong, and even gone to prison. So, when I learnt about Zheng Sheng College and how it helps students battle drug addiction, I decided to join the school as a teacher.
Why does your school use sports to help the students?
Most of our students have made mistakes in the past due to too much energy. Thus, we offer sports as a way for our students to release energy in an effective and safe way.
Why does your school use basketball and long distance running and not other sports?
Our school believes that basketball is one of the most effective sport for our students. First off, the tight rules against physical contact is perfect for our students, many of whom have had physical violence problems in their past. Secondly, the controlled atmosphere on the basketball court helps our students, as they are quite prone to getting angry. Lastly, skills such as teamwork, discipline can be learned while playing with teammates on the court. For long distance running, its perfect in that anyone can participate. As unlike other sports where talent can make a significant difference, a lot of practice and training can allow anyone to succeed. This is very important for our students, as their past background and low self esteem as a result of their past mistakes makes them very vulnerable to giving up. Furthermore, long distance running helps train discipline and dedication, as it requires our students to constantly practice to improve and beat their goal.
Can you describe more about your basketball team’s unique style of play?
At Zheng Sheng, our basketball team plays a tactic known as help-defense. This requires every player to not only do their own job well, but also help their teammates if necessary. This idea helps instill in our students the mentality that in life, you must do your own job well, and then help others when you can.
What do you think about the power of sports to change the lives of your students?
I believe that sports is a gift from God. People must have physical activity and this is God’s gift. For example, sports can help our students lose weight, as our students can set a weight target and achieve it through sports. Sports can also help bring positivity to our students’ life. As the joy and happiness on the field can raise our students’ esteem and confidence, which they can bring into their normal life. Lastly, students will often have conflicts with each other or with the other team while on the pitch. So, they must learn how to work with others and solve or overcome these problems.