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Be Brave

Stephanie Handojo swimming in a pool.
Stephanie Handojo

This article was first published in Human Race.

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

When I was nine years old, I almost drowned during a swimming competition. The incident traumatized me. Since then, I developed a terrible phobia of the water.

When my swimming coaches tried to persuade me to resume training, I used to tell them that I was too afraid of the water. Or I would come up with excuses that it was too cold, or that the pool was too deep.

Occasionally, I would even worry myself sick. Literally.

Eventually, my mother helped me conquer my paralyzing fear by staying in the water with me during training sessions and reassuring me when I protested.

It took at least half a year before I could swim 50 metres independently.

My family and coaches also helped me get over the trauma by reminding me of the Special Olympics athlete oath—“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

I am constantly reminded to be “brave in the attempt” to face my fears and overcome the odds.

As someone with Down syndrome, this philosophy applies to all aspects of my life—both on and off the sporting arena.

I am reminded to be brave in changing the public’s mindsets towards people with intellectual disabilities by showing the world what I can achieve.

Stephanie stands with a coach on a soccer field.
Stephanie Handojo with coach.

Today, I am 26, and I have represented Indonesia in multiple national, regional and global swimming competitions, winning several Gold medals in the process.

My first international event, the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece, was especially memorable for me.

It was the first time I had the opportunity to compete against other world-class athletes, and miraculously, I managed to clinch a Gold medal during the event.

Having a strong start to my swimming journey helped to pave the way for future opportunities, such as when Special Olympics Indonesia generously funded my training in public speaking and leadership skills.

Spurred by my passion to change the world, I tapped on my new skills to become an advocate for the inclusivity and kindness movement across Indonesia.

While I have had many opportunities like the above, one of my proudest achievements was being selected to be a torchbearer for the London 2012 Olympics because of my achievements in the Special Olympics.

I feel so blessed that the opportunities for me at Special Olympics brought me recognition in the community, including accolades from Office of the President of the Indonesian Republic. UNICEF Indonesia also commended my leadership with the “Champion for Children” honor.

In 2014, I was extremely honored to be one out of 12 Special Olympics athletes worldwide to be appointed as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, to spread the message and vision of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities globally.

When I am not in the pool, I enjoy playing the piano, cooking, playing badminton and meeting up with friends. My family owns a laundry business in Jakarta and I help to manage certain aspects of the business.

I believe every human being is beautiful and has something valuable to contribute to the world.

But that was not how I felt when I was a child. It was immensely difficult for me to make friends as a child. When I recall the past, it still brings tears to my eyes. However, I am now comforted by how far I have come; if only I could go back in time and tell myself that it will be okay.

I am thankful to have people around me who have supported me and accompanied me on this journey to greater confidence with patience, love, and without judgment.

The power of kindness cannot be underestimated.

If the kindness I have received can be spread across the community, and everyone can be “brave in the attempt” to overcome their personal prejudices and become more inclusive of people with disabilities, I believe the world will be a much better place.

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