Mariam Sylla powerfully smashes the table tennis ball across the table. She looks extremely concentrated and focuses all her energy on the game. The 15-year-old from the Ivory Coast is competing at the Special Olympics World Games for the fourth time—this year in the under-17 group. Her coach N'galle Jean Pierre Eyoum watches her every move and gives her tips during breaks in the game.
Jean Pierre has been coaching Mariam for five years. He owns the table tennis club where Mariam trains. Jean Pierre has made it his mission to support athletes with disabilities and you can sense how much this commitment is close to his heart. He recognized great athletic potential in Mariam from the very beginning. “We had a tough start”, he says, “but after a year the knot broke and she developed enormously fast.”
Mariam comes from a family with many children. This is perhaps one of the reasons why her disability was not noticed in the first years of her life. Mariam has difficulty remembering things and therefore had a hard time in school. But with a lot of discipline and the support of Jean-Pierre, she learned to read and write. Playing table tennis has given her confidence a huge boost.
There are officially 453,000 people with disabilities in Côte d'Ivoire; that's about two percent of the population. “Many parents give their children away when they have a disability”, says Jean-Pierre. Prejudice is often embedded in the culture, so people with disabilities experience rejection.
Mariam won the singles for her age group this year. She has big plans for the future. She wants to participate not only in Special Olympics, but also in regular competitions. Coach Jean Pierre believes strongly in her and says without hesitation, “She can do it.”