Special Olympians offer lesson in living life to the fullest

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” That’s the oath Special Olympians have taken before their competitions for the past 50 years. It’s also a great mantra to adopt for any of life’s challenges.

Organizers of the first Special Olympics in Chicago were met with their fair share of critics, questioning why they’d put “undesirables” with physical or intellectual disabilities on public display — and sadly, there are still people today with the same attitude — but it is evident they knew what they were doing and that perseverance has created something great that has impacted the lives of millions, both athletes and supporters.

Like few other experiences, sport offers a chance to live life in the moment. Anything can happen and it often does. To be ready for that moment, athletes dedicate themselves to training, they take lessons from their losses, and they build resilience, Sometimes, they won’t experience that feeling of victory, but that’s the nature of the game. After all, as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said “Winning isn’t everything — but wanting to win is.” That desire is part of the human condition and, at some level, it drives us all, regardless of athleticism or ability.

True, some Special Olympians might not have the honed ability to run, jump, swim or score like some other decorated athletes in their chosen fields. Others regularly outperform expectations and competitors who might possess characteristics that would seem an advantage. In that regard, this competition isn’t so different to sport and to life in general. It illustrates that all have the ability to participate to their fullest, regardless of limitations.

It might also be important to consider involvement in the Special Olympics requires these athletes to face their barriers openly and move past them. That’s a powerful example for anyone that may be secretly suffering through mental illness or private stressors that are affecting their own performance at a job or an activity. Though difficult, life must still be lived. Those willing to persevere through difficulty and take ownership of the conditions they face can find meaning and success.

Of course, the Special Olympics movement should also demonstrate to broader society the value of supporting and including those dealing with something not everyone can relate to. Without a supporting community of coaches, fundraisers, and volunteers wrapped around the games, it’s difficult to imagine the movement having the same transformative effect as it has had for half a century. Those who haven’t had the chance to watch Special Olympics competitions themselves could benefit from attending or tuning in to an upcoming competition, like the provincial Invitational Youth Games in Toronto next month. Watch these brave young athletes and consider the brave attempt they are making. See their determination. Experience the smiles on their faces after they’ve put their best forward. Become romantic about the game again and consider getting off the sidelines in some tangible way. The experience could change a life for the better.

Before doing that, however, consider joining the chorus of people worldwide thanking two kinds of champions: Those who had the vision that made the Special Olympics possible over these last 50 years, and the brave athletes who have made their attempts with courage and grace while teaching us all a lesson about what winning means.

– Adam Bramburger