There is a favorite anecdote among the Special Olympics coaches in Loudoun, VA about the time they were checking in athletes gathering for a bus trip out of town. The team was heading to a volleyball tournament several hours away and would be spending the night. It was a pretty big deal.
Athletes were filing onto the bus when a teenager named Brett arrived lugging three or four heavy suitcases and an enormous body pillow. “That’s a lot of stuff you’ve got there,” said his coach. “You sure you really need all that? After all, we’re only going to be gone one day.” Brett replied, “That’s what Gilligan thought.”
Since I started coaching bowling for the Loudoun Special Olympics in Virginia (Area 14) four years ago, I’ve never ceased to be awed by the wisdom that reveals itself through the words and actions of my special needs friends. From simple lessons on civility to profound insights on the brilliant inner workings of an autistic mind, the only thing I can conclude from my experience as a coach is that it’s about so much more than bowling.
Practice begins promptly at noon on Sunday, and no matter how early I arrive at the bowling alley, there is sure to be a handful of athletes already sitting there by their lanes, patiently waiting. Waiting is something they do a lot. When you are dependent on other people for basic needs like taking you where you want to go, you resign yourself to waiting.
The instant they see me, they pop out of their seats to greet me. After four years, I’ve earned a hug. In the beginning they were more cautious. They wanted to see what sort of person I was first. Was I kind? Did I have a sense of humor? Would I treat them with respect? Was I worthy of their friendship and trust? Did I have a clue what I was doing? They were forgiving on that last point, as long as I was good on the other counts.
Truth be told, there isn’t much they can’t do without me when it comes to bowling. Many of them are quite capable of setting up the electronic scoreboards and running the lanes. Most of them are far better bowlers than I am − a fact that was driven home a few years ago when I teamed up with a couple of
athletes for a unified tournament in Las Vegas. With images of “The Big Lebowski” swirling around my head, I’d jumped at the chance to participate. However, the moment I stepped onto the lane to throw that first ball, a feeling of sheer panic washed over me. What on earth was I thinking?
After two less than impressive attempts, my partner Amy Jo asked, “Were you concentrating?” Like many athletes, Amy Jo is a fierce competitor. The people who run Special Olympics will tell you that it’s all about participation, and it is, but it’s also about going for the gold.
Knowing that I was the weak link that stood between our team and that medal was a burden I hadn’t planned on. Amy Jo understood. “Take your time,” she said. “You can do it.” She continued to encourage me as I struggled to do better. “It’s okay. You’ll get it next time.” She was coaching me.
No matter how dismal it got – and after I had bowled two games under 100, it was getting pretty dismal – Amy Jo remained positive. She never gave up on me. That is the only explanation I have for what happened next. I began rolling strikes – one after the other. I got a mark almost every frame, punctuated each time by a round of high fives. Things were turning around. I wound up bowling the best game of my life that day (a 187), and our team took the gold. Do I know what it means to an athlete to stand in front of a crowd and have that medal draped around her neck? You bet I do. It’s one of the most awesome feelings in the world. I plan to be buried wearing the medal I won that day.
To walk out onto the Las Vegas strip that evening with Amy Jo and another athlete, Russell, was to experience pure, unadulterated joy. To be in the company of people who were so sincerely awed by everything they saw – bright lights, dancing fountains, the giant M&M and its eponymous store –was nothing short of magical.
Only once did the mood dip as we were waiting for the Treasure Island pirate show to begin. It wasn’t the waiting that bothered them. Patience is truly one of their virtues. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other tourists out on the town. After repeatedly being jostled about by people shoving their way through the crowd without a simple “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” Russell turned to me and asked, “Why do people have to be so rude?” Good question, I thought, and that’s when it hit me. If only the rest of the world could be like him, what a beautiful place it would be.
The more time I spend with athletes like Amy Jo and Russell, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. One of my greatest teachers was an athlete named Tracey. Of all the athletes I’ve known, Tracey, who has Down syndrome, may be the one with whom I can best identify.
Tracey’s smile was infectious. She threw her arms in the air and jumped when she was excited. She rolled her eyes when she heard something that she considered stupid. She had a keen insight that most ordinary people lack. Tracey understood more than most people gave her credit for. Her speech was halting. Sometimes her face became locked in a crooked stare. Sometimes she drooled. She was painfully aware of these things.
We were at a tournament eating dinner one evening when a tiny thread of spittle leaked out of the corner of her mouth. As she quietly picked up her napkin to dab it away, she cast a cautious eye toward me. Upon catching my hint of a smile, her mouth closed to form a sheepish grin. It was priceless.
Back in the hotel room that
night, Tracey watched me as I tried to sort out the pile of pills she was scheduled to take for the next two days. “Is this your first time administering meds?” she asked. “Yeah,” I replied. “I thought so,” she said. Her pill count was off, so I called the staff at her group home to ask what I should do. They told me not to worry. The pills she was missing were for depression. She’d be fine, they assured me.
Later the next day, Tracey began to get agitated. To be fair, I’d been struggling to manage another athlete named Todd, and wasn’t giving her as much attention as I normally did. Todd could be difficult, especially when things were not going his way. That day, he was the only athlete in our delegation who didn’t win a medal, and he was acting out badly. I understood all too well how he felt, so I tried not to fuss too much over the other athletes and their medals. Unfortunately, my strategy didn’t do much to shift Todd’s mood, and it was definitely affecting Tracey’s. She’d won a gold medal, and was understandably proud. She deserved to be fussed over.
As the day went on, Tracey went from agitated to depressed. By nightfall, she’d gotten my attention. She did not want to go to the party we were having after the closing ceremony, so we walked outside for some air. It was at that point that she began to unload all the feelings of pain and rejection she’d been carrying inside.
As we talked, she confided that no matter how hard she tried to please people, it never seemed to be enough. I tried to offer her some words that might be of comfort. “You know, Tracey, I used to worry a lot about what other people thought, but I don’t so much anymore.” Tracey replied, “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not retarded.”
What could I say? She was right. There was no possible way for me to understand what it was like to live inside her body, to watch the world watching and judging you. She knew what people thought of her. They dismissed her intelligence by talking to her like a child. Not everyone, mind you, but enough. And it hurt like hell.
Tracey was in better spirits as we drove home the next day. As for myself, I would be forever changed. She moved away a couple of years ago, but I will never forget her or the things she taught me. Her absence has left a hole in my heart. I suppose that comes with the territory.
Not long after Tracey left, an athlete named Lance committed suicide. Lance was one of the most likable people you could ever meet. Like Tracey, he was also smart enough to know the pain of being different. For a while, he’d been living independently, sharing an apartment with another athlete and working in a nearby grocery store. More recently, he’d had some setbacks and was forced to return home to live with his parents. Hours after Lance went missing, his former roommate called to alert me to the news. Five days later, he contacted me again to tell me that Lance’s body had been found in a pond by his house.
The Special Olympics community quickly rallied to do something to remember Lance. Two athletes, Danny and Amy, came up with the idea of memorializing him with those rubber wrists brands made popular by that other guy with the same name. At his funeral, athletes passed out hundreds of blue bracelets inscribed with the words, “The Real Lance.”
As expected, the service was deeply moving as one after another − coaches, athletes, friends and family − got up to pay tribute to this sweet, tortured soul who’d touched so many hearts. Just when I thought I couldn’t shed another tear, the most beautiful scene unfolded before my eyes. Athletes began rising from their seats and walking single file toward the altar. Their procession was painfully slow, with many limping and some using crutches. Around each athlete’s neck dangled one of those cherished, shiny medals. When they reached the front of the church, they stopped before a small table. Then quietly, one by one, they removed the medals from around their necks and laid them on the table for their friend Lance.
Viewing the world through the eyes of a Special Olympics athlete brings new meaning to the term “paradigm shift.” It’s a shift that I wish everyone could be lucky enough to experience.
Image Courtesy: Susan Sedlazek