As the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games came to an end, all in attendance gathered to celebrate a week of sports and inclusion at the Closing Ceremony. Over the loudspeakers and displayed on the jumbotron, the announcement that the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games would be held in Orlando, FL was made. A sense of excitement could be felt throughout the entire venue.
After a successful event in Seattle, the Orlando-based Local Organizing Committee’s (LOC) goal was to make the next event even better. With the bar set high and plans to host a majority of the 2022 USA Games at ESPN's Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World Resort, the foundation was laid. In February 2019, for the first time in USA Games history, Special Olympics athletes helped design the Games’ logo. The Games, at least the vision for them, were off to a strong and athlete-inspired start.
But that was just the beginning of the 2022 USA Games making history by involving athletes in unprecedented ways.
"We'd been using our logo participants pretty frequently to jump onto meetings or if we wanted some athlete perspective on things," Kyle Jaimes, Director of Operations for the 2022 USA Games, says. "One of our staff members had put together an idea for an athlete brand ambassador program, and from there, we developed the idea to bring an Athlete Input Council (AIC) into our LOC since that's something that happens at the state level and international level."
After holding introductory Zoom meetings and asking for recommendations from Special Olympics Programs, 19 athletes from around the United States and the Caribbean joined the first-ever USA Games Athlete Input Council.
The athletes meet with Jaimes and their LOC staff mentors every quarter as part of a focus group to discuss the overall experience at the USA Games. They provide feedback via surveys focusing on catering, transportation, the Games app and more.
Haley Waggoner, a Special Olympics athlete from Nebraska and member of the logo design team, has been involved with self-advocacy efforts for several years and naturally took on a leadership role within the AIC.
As Chair of the AIC, Waggoner says her favorite part is "mostly all of it. It’s a great honor to be a part of the 2022 USA Games Athlete Input Council. I'm just excited to put my input in and giving staff an athlete's point of view. All the members on this council are leaders and we have many ideas that can bring the Games to life."
Malcom Harris-Gowdie, a Special Olympics Florida athlete, is not only a member of the AIC but is also on the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games Board of Directors. With a heap of experience, he shares extensive insight on ways to make the USA Games better.
"I provided input on making sure that our app makes it easier for everyone to see all the events," he says, going into in great detail about his role. "Once we launch the app, I've said that we need to make sure that all the national outlets know that we're launching the app so they can share it and everyone can download it. I've mentioned too that we need buses that are wheelchair accessible and that they're clean."
Members of the AIC are involved in the planning of the 2022 USA Games in a variety of ways, including interviewing potential staff members. They will also have key roles in training volunteers for the Games.
AIC members will serve as guest speakers at in-person volunteer training sessions, help organize volunteer training and serve in different volunteer roles throughout the week. They will also coordinate competing athletes from various delegations who will write thank you messages to volunteers.
They will also help with the Games’ sustainability program.
"Athletes are going to have a Unified activity in the Athlete Village where they plant seeding’s at a station manned by the Girl Scouts who will share with the athletes what they learned about the plant and growing process," Jeanne Ford, Director of Operations for the 2022 USA Games, says about the sustainability program. "To help facilitate competing athletes returning home and creating their own gardens, the AIC is going to research and create an online directory of potential opportunities in the athletes' delegation areas."
Layla Crehan, a multi-sport athlete from Special Olympics Florida and a member of the AIC, shares her joy and excitement at being part of such an impactful council.
"It makes me feel so proud," a shy Crehan says with a visible smile on her face.
"I answer surveys and give ideas for music and a chill-out area where the athletes will hang out," she continues as she talks about her role. "Most importantly, we talk about what will make us feel safe while at the Games.”
“I’m hoping that this will be so amazing that every event after this uses it as a model. I hope they always include us in the planning process,” she adds. “It makes the athletes feel like they are taken seriously when they get to add their opinions.”
Javier Guerrero, a long-time Special Olympics volunteer, acts as a facilitator for the AIC. His experience from serving as facilitator for the Special Olympics D.C. Athlete Input Council taught him the type of support and leadership the athletes need to succeed.
"It's remarkable to be the facilitator and interact with and learn from some incredible athlete leaders, not only from the U.S. but from across North America [including the Caribbean]," Guerrero says about the impact serving on the AIC has had on him.
The impact of the 2022 USA Games will be far reaching with more than 4,000 athletes from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, several Caribbean Programs and Puerto Rico traveling to participate in the largest sporting event held in Florida June 5 – 12. They’ll be joined by 10,000 volunteers, 1,500 coaches and 125,000 fans. Harris-Gowdie says it's a "surreal" feeling to have the USA Games in his home state and says it will be "the best Special Olympics USA Games."
As the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games inch closer, the more involved athletes become. The more significant impact they have. Moving forward, the message is clear: athletes must play a pivotal role in the advancement of the organization and in the decision-making process of events.
"For future Games, you're going to want athlete input because, at the end of the day, the athletes are going to be the ones who determine what they want for these Games," Harris-Gowdie says about athletes' involvement. "You're going to need an Athlete Input Council because you're going to want to hear the voices of the athletes because at the end of day, it's all athlete-driven."