The Special Olympics. What’s so special?

The World Special Olympic Games are in LA this week.

Here’s something I wrote for my paper in 2008:

jillian medals

Olympics with spirit beyond special

Paul Daugherty

There are a few small, subtle differences between Olympians and Special Olympians that only a trained, veteran sports journalist such as myself would notice.

Olympians do not yell “I love you” to their mothers in the stands 10 seconds before they are to swim in the 200-meter medley relay. On occasion, Special Olympians have been known to do just that. Such as Saturday at the Hamilton County Special Olympics swim meet.

At the conclusion of the playing of the “The Star Spangled Banner” to open an event, Olympic swimmers do not yell, “Play ball!” Special Olympians might. They, in fact, do.

Olympians don’t do cannonballs off the starting blocks when commencing a 50-meter freestyle race.

After capturing bronze in the 25-meter free, an Olympian won’t flex on the medal stand and do the lambada. (OK, so there is no 25-meter freestyle event in the Olympic Games. There is one in the Special Olympics.)

Ain’t that right, Jillian Daugherty?

“That’s not my daughter,” I said, as some really cute kid atop the No.3 box on the stand started doing the Mr. Universe bit. “Look at Jillian,” said the helpful folks to my right and left Saturday at Princeton High School.

“Who?” I asked.

It’s special, all right. But it’s not special in the way you might think it is. Here’s what’s special about the Special Olympics.

Here’s what grabs me by the aorta, to say nothing of the ventricles left and right:

It’s a few hours of people being good to each other. It’s an interlude of consistent decency. Humanity is front and center, in all its fragile glory.

Kids with walkers, autistic kids, kids with Down Syndrome. A blind girl walks around the pool deck during the opening ceremonies, cane in hand. Tapping.

Volunteers, helping kids into and out of the pool. Volunteers walking the deck, stride for stroke with kids whose best ability is a spirit for giving everything they have. One kid takes almost a minute to swim 25 yards. A volunteer is with him every stroke of the way, urging gently.

When volunteers can’t help because they’re busy elsewhere, the kids help each other. “Here,” they say. “Give me your hand.” When the races are done, the loudest cheers don’t go to the kid who finished first – they go to the kid who simply finished.

I refuse to make this into syrup. The Special Olympics aren’t a Hallmark convention, OK? Please do not use the opportunity to applaud for one of these children as a reason to feel good about yourself. Applaud them because they deserve it. The only thing worse than patronizing Special Olympians is ignoring them.

After all: Doesn’t every parent see his child as special?

Many Special Olympians are very good swimmers and proud of it. Some are not. Some kids hold the wall with one arm while stroking with the other. Some kids stop halfway to tread water and catch their breath. Sometimes, a kid is spooked enough by the starting horn and the sound of the crowd, he can’t make himself get in the water.

Olympians are perfect, or as close to perfect as they can make themselves. Special Olympians are more like the rest of us.

Before she started auditioning on the medal stand for “Dancing With the Stars,” the bronze medalist/showoff lingered in the water, long enough to slap hands with the girl in the adjacent lane that had beaten her for the silver. Before her own race, J. Daugherty stood on the deck, cheering a teammate already racing. She helped a kid out of the water.

When her boyfriend, the highly impressive Ryan Mavriplis, won the gold in the 25-yard free, J. Daugherty took gold in the 25-yard smile, ear-to-ear division. She’s happy when others are. It’s pretty special.

She’d eaten pancakes before the meet. “Power breakfast,” she called it. When she finished fourth in one event, she pouted. We’re working on that. Before the meet, she climbed the stands. “I came up so you guys could wish me good luck,” she announced.

“OK, superstar,” I said. “Go stretch or something.”

Her friend Margo competed in the 100-yard backstroke. Margo won the race – and kept swimming, another 25 yards. Which is a nice metaphor, if you’re looking.


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