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    Athlete Leaders

    Special Olympics athletes contribute to their communities in so many ways beyond the playing field. Athlete leaders put their talents to work as volunteers, coaches, fund-raisers, staffers, Board Members and spokespersons. They are teaching the world the true meaning of inclusion.

    The 2015-2019 class of Special Olympics Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers was chosen from among top athlete leaders around the world. They are pictured here with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver.

Athlete Leadership

Through sports training and competitions, Special Olympics helps people with intellectual disabilities (ID) achieve joy, acceptance and success. They gain the confidence that comes with achievement. They feel empowered. Athletes lead the way as the voices of the movement, educating the world about the potential of people with ID and driving the Special Olympics movement forward with their insights and contributions.

Inclusion Starts with Athlete Leadership

Athlete Leadership empowers people with intellectual disabilities to develop their skills and undertake meaningful roles in their communities.
  • Large group of athlete and youth leaders
    "Nothing About Us, Without Us." Special Olympics athletes take this disability rights slogan very seriously. That's why Special Olympics athletes are involved in every step of the organization -- all around the world and in every possible role. Above, athletes with intellectual disabilities (ID) and unified teammates take a break during a meeting of the Youth Activation Committee. This Unified committee of young leaders works together to promote a more inclusive world -- through sports and youth engagement.
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    In Special Olympics' nearly 50-year history, athletes have led the way -- smashing stereotypes and breaking down barriers all around the world. Here, athlete Ricardo Thornton, left, carries the Flame of Hope with former South African President Nelson Mandela. This 2001 event launched an ambitious campaign -- led and embraced by Special Olympics athletes -- aimed at expanding Special Olympics programs to neglected and isolated people with intellectual disabilities across the African continent.
  • 1000 x 667 Jimmy Massina as Referee
    Jimmy Masina of South Africa started as an athlete in the 1990s, competing in football and athletics. But it was floor hockey that he really loved. Through Special Olympics, he says he was able to meet athletes like himself, overcome the stigma he'd grown up with, and gain the confidence to tackle his challenges head-on. With determination and training, he moved on to coaching. Jimmy now serves as a floor hockey official -- in local, provincial and even World Games. He is also on staff with the Special Olympics Africa Regional office.
  • Loretta testifying
    Speaking before a UN General Assembly session, Loretta Claiborne said: "I am here today to represent 200 million people worldwide who – like me – have an intellectual disability. You may not see my disability, and that is part of the challenge...Recognize me, and those like me, when goals and strategies are set. ...And recognize that in many ways, the greatest disability we face is external, and it is one of stigma and falsely low expectations that society has about what we can achieve." Loretta is a Special Olympics athlete with a global reputation as an eloquent and powerful speaker for the rights of people with ID. Sports showed her a new world of achievement. She has completed over 26 marathons and placed in the top 100 women finishers of the Boston Marathon twice. Her life and struggles are the subject of Disney's film "The Loretta Claiborne Story." Loretta is a sought-after speaker around the world. (For more information, here's a link to the speaker request form).
  • David Egan testifying
    As the first spokesperson for a special partnership between Special Olympics and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Lucy Meyer has been working to raise visibility and resources around the world. Lucy has spoken around the USA, presented to U.S. President Barack Obama, and met with U.S. lawmakers to urge ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She also carved out a role as a successful fundraiser focusing on programs that directly impact and benefit children with disabilities in Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru.
  • David Egan testifying
    Lani DeMello's first love is competing in gymnastics, but she has also become a mentor and a peer coach to other Special Olympics rhythmic gymnasts. At the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles, she also served as a gymnastics official. She also served as an international technical official for rhythmic gymnasts. Here, Lani, 31, left, takes a break with gymnast Melissa Escamilla of Mexico.
  • David Egan testifying
    David Egan, right, testifies on employment of people with intellectual disabilities at a U.S. Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee hearing. David credits Special Olympics for “giving him a voice” and he has been actively using his voice to change perceptions, promote respect, inclusion and dignity for people with intellectual disabilities -- as an expert witness, columnist and public speaker. Recently, he served as a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation Public Policy Fellow with the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. David worked to influence policy and also improve how individuals and organizations view people with disabilities.
  • David Egan testifying
    Sargent Shriver, second from right, former Special Olympics President and Chairman of the Board Emeritus, was an early advocate for increased Athlete Leadership roles in Special Olympics. The first group of international spokespeople for Special Olympics were named Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers (IGMs) in his honor. The young men and women of this first class of IGMs were inducted in 1998 to mark the 30th anniversary of Special Olympics. There have been a total of 72 International Global Messengers selected to date. It is the early investment in athletes as leaders that has enable SOI to grow from a sports organization to also become an agent for change in society – through the voices and advocacy of the athletes.

  • 1000 x 667 2015 class of International Global Messengers

    Every four years, 12 athletes from around the world are selected for the Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers program. They are trained in public speaking, media outreach and policy advocacy-- and serve as primary spokespeople on behalf of Special Olympics and Special Olympics athletes. 

    The 2015-2019 class is pictured here with Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. From left: Omar Mohamed El Shenawy, Egypt; Chanchai Kemkaew, Thailand; Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver; Lize Weerdenburg, the Netherlands; Jason Gieschen, Nebraska, USA; Johanna Pramstaller, Austria; Pam Langille, New Hampshire, USA; Stephanie Handojo, Indonesia; Yoona Kim, Korea; Brightfield Shadi, Botswana; Nitzeida Gálvez Orozco, Panama; Selina Ao Ieong, Macau; and David Egan, Virginia, USA.

  • David Egan testifying
    Meet Kester Edwards: former Special Olympics athlete, trailblazing former Special Olympics International Board Member, and member of the very first class of International Global Messengers. He’s shown here, center, with Olympic legend Rafer Johnson at our 30th Anniversary Celebration in 1998. Kester is currently the Manager of Sport & Development at Special Olympics HQ in Washington, DC. He is known as a sports innovator who played a pivotal role in bringing an endurance sport -- open water swimming -- to Special Olympics. His goal was to challenge our athletes in a bold new way. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Kester started as a Special Olympics swimmer at the age of 9. He went on to compete in football (soccer), basketball, volleyball and floor hockey. He competed in the 1987 World Summer Games; by 1995, he was serving as an official at the Special Olympics World Games in Connecticut. After a years-long campaign, Kester succeeded in bringing open water swimming to the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens as a demonstration sport. Today, thanks to Kester, open water swimming is an official Special Olympics sport. 
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    Jasmine Sharif is former chair of Special Olympics Pakistan Athlete Input Council and serves as Co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Athlete Input Council. Jasmine is active on social media and regularly submits short stories about the impact of Special Olympics. She recently wrote how Special Olympics has changed her life: “I became stronger, made a lot of friends, and most of all I became more confident." 
  • 1000 x 667 Athlete Leadership Ben Haack
    An Athlete Input Council is a forum for athletes to voice their opinions about issues important to Special Olympics. Athletes also develop leadership skills, serve as volunteers, and represent fellow athletes. The councils are developed at the local, national, regional and global level. The goal is always to decide what is best for Special Olympics and the athletes. Ben Haack, above center, is the co-chair of the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Athlete Input Council and is pictured with Program leaders from the Asia Pacific region. The regional Athlete Input Council in Asia Pacific participates in regional business meetings and represent their fellow athletes. He is also a member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.

  • 1000x667 Matthew at Board Meeting
    Matthew Williams, above, is chair of the Global Athlete Congress. He was elected at the 2010 Global Athlete Congress in Marrakesh, Morocco. This was the third Global Athlete Congress and brought together 66 Special Olympics athletes from more than 35 countries around the world. "I think people with intellectual disabilities can teach others about determination and overcoming odds," says Matthew. "A lot of people with disabilities are told they aren't going to be able to do something -- but they don't look at it as a barrier; they go out and give it their all and try to achieve those goals they set for themselves." Matthew is also a member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.

Exploring New Challenges

As Special Olympics athletes gain in confidence and feel empowered, they often seek new challenges. They want to build on their successes, including their social skills.

They can become mentors for other athletes. They can train to become coaches and officials. They can also move toward a more public role as a speaker or spokesperson, telling audiences and journalists about the remarkable changes that Special Olympics helped bring to their lives.

Special Olympics Athlete Leadership allows athletes to explore opportunities for greater participation in our movement beyond sports training and competition: as coaches, officials, team captains, spokespeople and Board and committee members.

These roles give athletes a voice in shaping the Special Olympics movement, and a chance to spread the word about the transformations Special Olympics can bring to individuals and families. Athlete Leadership also provides a way for athletes to showcase talents and interests that may have gone unnoticed, such as public speaking.

Special Olympics athlete leaders from around the world took the stage alongside former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Paychex Founder and Chairman Tom Golisano at the 2012 announcement of Golisano’s $12 million gift to increase health services worldwide for people with intellectual disabilities (ID). From left, Ioana Ciobano; Dustin Plunkett; Deon Namiseb; Loretta Claiborne; former President Clinton; Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver; and Tom Golisano, who is also founder of the Golisano Foundation. (Golisano has since made another donation -- $25 million -- to improve health services for people with ID.)

Be a Part of the Vision

Many athletes choose to undergo training to learn presentation skills so they can help spread the message of Special Olympics to the general public. Some are selected by Special Olympics International to serve as Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers. Like Martha Hill of the United States, who says, “I feel the training and opportunities given to me through Special Olympics were an investment in me, and I need to use my abilities to help champion the rights of all those with disabilities.”

Other athletes have an interest in discussing programming and policy. Athletes who serve on the Special Olympics Boards of Directors help the movement set priorities based on what athletes want. Athletes also share their perspectives on how well Games are run, and their wisdom about how to spend Special Olympics resources.

Athlete Leadership trainings are offered in 67 countries and are initiated at the grass-roots level. Many athletes are trained to engage in policy discussions and to articulate their opinions to community and government leaders. Once a year, athletes in the United States lobby members of Congress for both local and global support of Special Olympics.