Athlete Leaders From Around the World

Through sports training and competitions, Special Olympics helps people with intellectual disabilities find joy, acceptance and success. As their lives open up, athletes gain the confidence that comes with achievement. They feel empowered. 

They are ready to take on new leadership challenges to make use of their new abilities. 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. They can speak to audiences and journalists about the positive changes that Special Olympics helped bring about in their lives. At Special Olympics, our athletes are empowered to share their many gifts and talents with society. Yet, it's more than that. Our athletes also become empowered to be leaders in society -- and teach us all about acceptance and understanding.


Our athlete leaders are powerful and insightful speakers. To learn how to invite a Special Olympics leader to speak, please visit our speakers bureau page.


Andy Miyares, Special Olympics Florida, USA

Andy Miyares is a 27-year-old Special Olympics athlete from Miami, Florida who will be representing the Special Olympics as a Global Messenger for next four years. As soon as you meet Andy, you can’t help but feel his warm and welcoming nature. He carries himself with a sense of pride and confidence that lights up the room.

Andy was born with Down syndrome and did not have a lot of muscle control as a child, so his mother decided to put him in the water to strengthen him. Within four weeks, Andy’s muscles became stronger. He started pulling himself up and began to crawl.

Swimming for Special Olympics is a big part of Andy’s life. He started training for Special Olympics at age six and has been a part of Special Olympics for 14 years. In August of 2010, he took part in the U.S. Masters Swimming Competition in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was made up of a collection of swimmers from 28 U.S. states and five countries. Participants included International Swimming Hall of Fame members, International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame members, and USMS national and world record holders.

He competed in the men’s 200- and 100-meter butterfly, plus the 800- and 1500-meter freestyle. When asked how he did, he looked up with a raised eyebrow and an unwavering grin. Andy said he totally “destroyed all of my records.”

When Andy isn’t training or competing, he is working or hanging out with friends. He works for Special Olympics Miami, answering phones and managing the volunteer and coaches’ database. In his spare time, he enjoys going to the movies and eating out with friends. He loves Cuban food and his favorite dish is arroz with habichuelas and lechón asado (rice, beans and roasted pork).

With the support of his family, friends and Special Olympics, Andy will embark on a life-altering journey as a Special Olympics Global Messenger to spread the word about how his life and the lives of other Special Olympic athletes have been truly touched and enriched by their experience with Special Olympics.

Because of Special Olympics, they now have goals, they have aspirations and they are motivated to show the world that they can make a positive contribution to society.

To sum up what Special Olympics means to Andy Miyares, he leaves us with this message, “Andy is my name, swimming is my game and Special Olympics is my life.”

Anton Jose Maria Silos, Special Olympics Philippines

Anton has been an athlete with Special Olympics for seven years. His sport is bowling and he averages 200+ per game with a 15-lb. ball. He practices several times each week and plays on a league that plays four games a week.

He is grateful to have Special Olympics in his life because he gets to have fun and meets new friends. He has been able to travel and appreciates that Special Olympics has let him do so.

His parents own an advertising agency in the Philippines, where he works part-time. His job is to approve all designs and pass them on to the client for approval.

Anton is from a family of five and has an older brother and a younger sister who live in San Francisco, California. He is considering golf as his next Special Olympics sport.

Ariel Ary, Special Olympics Costa Rica

Ariel Ary Chinchilla, 19, of Escazu, Costa Rica has been a Special Olympics athlete for more than 10 years and is a star tennis player.

He is excited to be a new Special Olympics International Global Messenger and proud to share his message that Special Olympics athletes are strong people who want to be valued, included and live in a world where they are respected.

Ariel works in the human resources department for IBM in Costa Rica and spends much of his free time training to improve his tennis skills. He’s played tennis at the Pan-American Games in Mexico and Brazil, and won gold at the recent Special Olympics Latin America Regional Games in Puerto Rico. The mayor has presented him with the key to the city – and the key is now proudly displayed at his Ariel’s home in Costa Rica. He also had the privilege of carrying the final leg of the torch run when it came through Costa Rica on its way to the Latin America regional games.

In addition, Ariel has successfully completed a specialized course in motivation and leadership at the Technological Institute of Costa Rica and has been studying Portuguese at the Instituto de Estudios Brasileiros.

The 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens will be Ariel’s very first World Games – and he is excited to attend as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. He wants to give thanks to Special Olympics for being the daily inspiration in his life.

Caroline Verdenal, Special Olympics France

Caroline Verdenal, 56, is a Special Olympics International Global Messenger from Pau, France. As a Special Olympics athlete, Caroline competed in cross country skiing and swimming. In 1985, Caroline had the opportunity to travel to Park City, Utah, where she won a silver medal in cross country skiing at the Third International Special Olympics Winter Games.

Today, Caroline competes occasionally in table tennis and bocce, but her greatest passion is serving as an assistant coach for the local Special Olympics basketball team.

As a coach, she always tells her players to keep smiling and stay motivated in the face of defeat. Outside of Special Olympics, Caroline loves to read, shop, tap dance and travel. In fact, in the last few years, Caroline has traveled to Poland, Scotland, and all over Europe, but her favorite destination has been Washington, D.C. in the United States. 

As an International Global Messenger, Caroline hopes to make Special Olympics more widely recognized in Europe and also to help other athletes experience the extraordinary adventures she has had through Special Olympics. 

Deon Clarence Namiseb, Special Olympics Namibia

Deon Namiseb wants to challenge all expectations about people with intellectual disabilities – especially all low expectations. When Deon was born in Namibia in 1978, doctors saw he had multiple disabilities and some paralysis. They had the infant pushed into a corner and left to die. But Deon’s aunt was on the hospital cleaning staff and rescued her young nephew from what could have been fatal neglect.

In those years, many other people shared those doctors’ low expectations. As a result, Deon recalls that his childhood and youth were “a bit difficult.” But then he found Special Olympics.

Deon has been involved with Special Olympics since 1998, the year the organization was established in Namibia. He says Special Olympics has changed his life “for the better” and “opened doors.”

He took part in his country’s first-ever football and track and field events and was selected as an alternate to represent Namibia in the World Summer Games in Dublin. By the 2007 World Games, he was captain of the Special Olympics football team that went on to win silver. Since then, he has helped plan the 2008 Football for Hope week and the 2009 Unified Basketball Competition. He also served as one of the Flame of Hope bearers in the local Law Enforcement Torch Run marking the 10th anniversary of Special Olympics Namibia.

Deon Namiseb has been recognized as a national sports hero across Nambia, where he has contributed immensely to his country by actively advocating for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. He has received the Disabled Sportsperson of the Year award, part of the national Namibian Sports Award. He was captain of the Special Olympics Namibian Soccer Team when it won the Disabled Sports Team of the Year Award.

Deon is always seeking new ways to serve his community. He helps out at his mother’s kindergarten for orphans and other vulnerable children. He coaches a senior female football team in a shantytown in Namibia’s capital. He is a certified Special Olympics assistant coach for the Football for Hope Movement. And he works with students who are repeating Grade 10 at Namibia College, doing his best to help them succeed.

“Special Olympics has helped me get involved in sports and get my message out,” says Deon, 32, who has taken part in football and athletics. The only International Global Messenger representing Africa, Deon has left behind an early life full of hardships and says he only looks ahead -- because “both my present and future are full of hope.”

Kristina O’Neal, Special Olympics Missouri, USA

Kristina O’Neal’s early years were defined mostly by abuse and neglect. But with an unstoppable spirit and inspiring positive attitude, she has worked to excel in all aspects of her life during the years she has spent with Special Olympics. Now 31 years old, she is active in several sports (bowling, softball, basketball, swimming, bocce, athletics and horseshoes), has been training to be an assistant basketball coach, and most recently completed training to be an International Global Messenger.

Kristina is proud to talk about how the amazing impact the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program – along with a free pair of prescription goggles -- has had on her life. Now, as a Global Messenger, she will travel the world to share her story.

“When I got my goggles thanks to Healthy Athletes, I was able to compete with my backstroke and improve my time, and it also helped me watch my friends, and get in and out of the water safer, and have a great time and enjoy my swimming,” Kristina said.

Born in Spokane, Wash., she spent much of her early life in foster homes. “My birth mother didn’t want to have anything to do to me because of my disability,” she said. At five years old, however, she was adopted by Cecil and Linda O’Neal, who introduced her to Special Olympics when she was 10. “They wanted me to succeed and be accepted and feel good about life.”

It worked. Today, Kristina’s motto is: “We need to smile more, because every 60 seconds that you spend unhappy is a minute of happiness that you will never get back.”

Special Olympics has always been a family affair for the O’Neals. Her father and her brother, CJ, take part as unified partners in bowling and softball, and coaches in multiple sports. Her mother was Kristina’s “personal cheerleader,” attending every event to support Kristina.

Two years ago, however, her adoptive mother died of cancer. “That was one of the toughest obstacles that I have ever had. When she passed away, I asked God for a sign, and a yellow butterfly (my mom’s favorite color) flew around me several times and then landed right on my heart. I knew it was her. She still influences me a lot.”

Whenever she faces challenges, Kristina says she receives tremendous support from both her families – the O’Neals and Special Olympics.
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Matthew Williams, Special Olympics Canada

 Still a teenager, Matthew Williams has been with Special Olympics about six years. His goal is to spread the message and vision of Special Olympics far and wide – through the example of his own personal accomplishments as well as through speaking engagements and through the internet, Facebook and Twitter.

Now 19, Matthew enjoys sports including aquatics, track and field, floor hockey and curling. Though young, Matthew has accomplished a lot – and being named an International Global Messenger is just the latest milestone in a string of recent successes. He took part in the final leg of the 2010 Olympic Torch Run alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was elected chairman of the Third Athlete Congress, held in Morocco. Last summer, he also entered his first national competition -- Canada’s Summer Games, where he won two medals. 

Matthew says that Special Olympics has changed his life in so many ways. He joined when he was in Grade 8, after what he calls a difficult year. “Grade 7 was very hard for me,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t play any sports.” Matthew had been in a regular hockey program, but it became increasingly hard for him to keep up. “There was nothing in my life,” recalls Matthew, “but now I have so much.”

In addition to making friends, Matthew says he’s been able to raise his confidence level – and keep it high. “I feel I can do anything I set my mind to.” Through Special Olympics, he says he’s learned that “nothing is impossible if you try your best and work at it.” 

Matthew’s goals include taking a personal training course and working toward someday being a certified personal trainer for athletes and people with disabilities.

Minmin Huang, Special Olympics China

Minmin Huang, 20, is a Special Olympics International Global Messenger from Fuzhou, China. Minmin got involved with Special Olympics in 2006, when she started playing both singles and doubles tennis. Shortly after starting with Special Olympics China, Minmin was selected to play tennis at the Special Olympics Chinese National Games.

Special Olympics has not only taken Minmin around the world, but has also helped her become more positive and happier in her daily life. Minmin believes competition has taught her confidence; travelling around the world teaches her about other cultures; and making new friends makes her happy. 

Because of Special Olympics, Minmin has set new goals and plans for her future. In addition to playing tennis, Minmin loves to play basketball and sing. As an International Global Messenger, Minmin hopes to raise awareness for other athletes and help them recognize their personal value.

Neha Naik, Special Olympics Bharat (India)

Neha Naik, 21, is a Special Olympics International Global Messenger from Mumbai, India, who competes in the 100-meter dash and shot-put events. As an athlete with Special Olympics, Neha has had the opportunity to travel and compete in India and beyond, including a trip to Washington, D.C.

Special Olympics has given Neha independence and confidence to speak in front of an audience, which will help Neha share her excitement about Special Olympics with the world. In addition to participating with Special Olympics as an athlete, Neha works for Special Olympics India training young athletes in sports and teaching reading and writing skills.

In Special Olympics and her daily life, Neha is all about her friends! She absolutely loves making new friends and staying in contact with them, especially the friends she has made all around the world. Neha also loves to cook Indian and Chinese food, just like the food her mom makes. 

As an International Global Messenger, Neha hopes to spread the message that Special Olympics is a very important organization for special athletes, both adults and children. 

Olga Dasoura, Special Olympics Hellas (Greece)

As an International Global Messenger, Olga Dasoura communicates the positive "we-can-do-it" message that she has learned through Special Olympics -- that people with intellectual disabilities can do anything if they try. A native of Athens, Greece, Olga can still recall how she felt at her first swimming event – a little scared, but also very impressed by all the other swimmers. They were swimming so well – how did they do that?! But she learned quickly – and says she'll never forget how she felt that very first time she swam and touched the wall at the other side of the swimming pool. For the first time, Olga says, she felt confident and strong.

That was in 1993. Now 31 years old, Olga says she still feels free and wonderful every time she swims. She wants to share that feeling with as many people as possible. She wants to let the world know that every single Special Olympics athlete around the world overcomes many obstacles every single day. She wants to help them achieve their dreams.

Olga Dasoura’s family has been striving for equal rights and equal opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities for as long as she can remember. She says her family has always wanted her to be involved in as many activities as possible, both with people with intellectual disabilities and without.

She is especially looking forward to the opportunity to be a spokeswoman for Special Olympics, as her hometown prepares to host thousands of athletes and supporters from all around the world at the 2011 World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Olga is determined to help people everywhere understand that Special Olympics is not only a sports program, but a “school” where you learn about acceptance and respect. 

Wei Chieh Chen, Special Olympics Chinese Taipei

Wei Chieh Chen (John) says Special Olympics has brought him some of the happiest moments of his life. The 28-year-old says he’s gained confidence through his participation in Special Olympics over the past 11 years and his life has been enriched.

John plays a wide range of sports, including swimming, cross-country skiing, table-tennis, in-line skating, the dragon boat and bocce. In Taiwan, Special Olympics officials say John’s achievements have made many families change their attitudes toward children with disabilities.

During the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai, John was selected to be the lead drummer during the traditional boat performance. He was the first to march, as the ceremonial boats followed the lead of his drum.

When asked about his proudest accomplishments, John points to the honor of being chosen an International Global Messenger. John is also proud of the overall progress he’s made through Special Olympics. He began as an athlete and quickly became a leader on his teams. He was also chosen to go to Morocco for the recent global Athlete Congress.

Outside of his Special Olympics activities, John is an avid jogger and can be seen setting the pace around his Taipei neighborhood. He also enjoys hanging out with his friends and working at a local restaurant that he says serves the best burgers in Taiwan.

Zakaria Aquedim, Special Olympics Morocco

Zakaria Aquedim says he’s ready to take on his new mission as an International Global Messenger -- the only one who can speak directly to Arabs worldwide with and without intellectual disabilities.

“I represent all the Arabs,” says Zakaria, who admits it’s a big responsibility. He adds, however, “I am capable of succeeding in this mission.

He’s from the Moroccan capital of Rabat, and has been a Special Olympics swimmer for more than seven years. His specialties include the 50- and 100-meter freestyle. Zakaria has brought home gold medals from both the World Summer Games in Dublin in 2003 and in Shanghai in 2007.

Swimming “gives me joy and courage,” says Zakaria. “I feel relaxed when I swim.”

At the age of 21, Zakaria has also become a public speaker, addressing a large audience at the Global Congress in Marrakech that included Morocco’s Princess Lalla Amina. He says he is very proud to be named an International Global Messenger. 

“I like it very much, and I’d like my dreams to come true – to change my whole life,” he says. “I will have the opportunity to visit the whole world and visit other people and athletes.”

His travels as a Global Messenger have already brought him to the United States, where he visited Washington, D.C. He says he found many things to enjoy there, though not always the food. Back in Morocco, he’s a lover of couscous. “I love it too much. It’s very delicious.”