I have had the opportunity to compete against and stand beside some inspiring athletes during my career, but you have not seen inspiration and joy in its purest form until you have witnessed a Special Olympics athlete competing.
A couple weeks ago, I had the remarkable opportunity to travel to China and Japan on behalf of Special Olympics. This was a very personal trip for me because my father and greatest supporter traveled with me, spending time in Japan, where he is from, and where my grandmother still lives. And then in China I had the chance to see my former coach, the great, Li Yan!
We first traveled to Japan, where I was moved by how the Special Olympics family has come together in Fukushima following last year’s tragic earthquake and tsunami. One of the highlights of my time there was getting back on the ice with the incredible Special Olympics athletes and hosting a skate clinic for Special Olympics Nippon in Fukushima for an event that included our athletes and local school children. There, I met Hiroyuki Endo and Susumu Endo, Special Olympics athletes from Fukushima, who were competing in the SO Nippon Winter Games. We worked together on skate skills and short track starting techniques.
The Special Olympics Nippon Winter Games was the first short track competition I’ve attended since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. I was thrilled to cheer on the athletes of Japan and I was humbled to meet Jun Murakimi, a Special Olympics athlete from Fukuoka, who is a really fast skater with excellent technique. He is coached by his brother Ryo; they are quite the duo! After meeting these athletes, I proudly joined in at the awards ceremony and cheered Banzai* for Jun, Hiroyuku and Susumu! (*Note: Banzai is a Japanese cheer that translates as “Long life!” or “Hurrah!” It is usually repeated three times to express enthusiasm or celebrate a victory.)
Special Olympics athletes strive to be better than they were yesterday, a philosophy, I believe, we should all live by every day. The athletes I’ve met through my journey with Special Olympics demonstrate the determination, sacrifice and effort it takes to be the best you can be and to accomplish the goal of being better than you were yesterday.
Another incredible facet of Special Olympics is that amidst all the turmoil in the world, so many people are willing to volunteer their time and follow in the footsteps of the passionate Eunice Kennedy Shriver. And like her, they are volunteering, donating and supporting because they believe in the power of unification. That’s the beauty of what Special Olympics does, it benefits all involved: athletes, volunteers, supporters, witnesses.
After witnessing the power of Special Olympics, I want the whole world to know about it. I want them to know how they can get involved as coaches, volunteers, supporters and advocates of inclusion. I also want people with intellectual disabilities to know about the opportunity of Special Olympics. China has more than one million Special Olympics athletes, and I want to help this number grow there and across the globe.
What I have always admired about China is its culture of “dreaming big.” At the speed skating clinic I hosted in Jilin City there was a banner that read “Embrace Special Olympics, Fly Your Hope and Share Your Happiness.” I would like to ask each of you – athlete, parent, volunteer, supporter, donor – to fly your hope to all you encounter for a world of inclusion, unity and dignity for all and to do your part in sharing the work and opportunity that is Special Olympics. Join with me in sharing your happiness!