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.