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Physical Distancing But Not Social Distancing: A Special Olympics Athlete’s Perspective

World Games 2019, Track and Field - young man celebrating.

It's the most exciting time of year for all who are involved. Each year at the beginning of June, hundreds of Special Olympics Maryland athletes gather at Towson University just outside Baltimore City, ahead of the annual Summer Games. No students are on campus now that they are on break, but nobody will notice. There's a block party happening with food vendors and carnival games. It's one of the biggest weekends of the year for the organization.

Spectators start to fill SECU arena, the site of the opening ceremony. Law enforcement officers surround the venue, cheering for the athletes. Then at night, they are joined by keynote speakers, community leaders, friends and family. Soon they will compete in a variety of sports over the three-day weekend.

This year, there will be no opening ceremony.

The parking lot that hosts the block party will be empty. The arena will have no fans in sight. There will be no speeches. No dancing. No cheers. A void every Special Olympics community is feeling right now.

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, sports have seemingly become non-existent. They have taken a backseat to the global pandemic.

That's ok. We understand.

Across the world, Special Olympics communities have come together, joined as one to lend a hand. Special Olympics Maryland has formed a home-based health and wellness campaign called Virtual MOVEment. Special Olympics Illinois is using what Special Olympics and WWE introduced in the School of Strength program. Special Olympics North Carolina came up with a 30-day challenge that encourages drinking five bottles of water, eating five fruits and five vegetables a day and exercising at least five times a week. Special Olympics New York and Special Olympics Ireland held a virtual high five challenge and the Law Enforcement Torch Run is encouraging people to run virtually. Athletes around the world are making face masks for members of their communities.

What it means to be a Special Olympics athlete resonates more now than ever before.

Back in 1987, at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in South Bend, Indiana, Eunice Kennedy Shriver spoke to athletes during the opening ceremony. Her speech was captivating. It was emotional. It was raw and most importantly, it embodied hope.

Athlete playing bocce.
World Games 2019 Bocce.

"Tonight, in this great stadium, a new legend is born," she said on behalf of those competing. "You, athletes, are the heroes of that legend. Here, where crowds once cheered for Johnny Lujack and George Gipp, for Joe Theisman and Rocky Bleier; tonight, they cheer for you.

"You Special Olympians have thrilled us on the playing fields of the world," she said. "You have taught us that what matters is not power or politics, weapons, or wealth. What truly counts is the courageous spirit, the generous heart."

Her words echoed throughout the world. Over 30 years ago, Mrs. Shriver told the athletes of Special Olympics that they had the right to play on any playing field, to study in any school, to hold any job and to be anyone's neighbor. At a time when we are unable to physically do any of these things because of Coronavirus, it's up to us to find new ways to play, to go to work, to learn and to be someone's neighbor.

COVID-19 has encouraged athletes to be creative, to think outside the box. The actions around the world are teaching us ways to stand out.

It's communication. It's self-advocacy. It's athlete leadership. It's thinking collectively as one during tough times.

We have never seen anything like this. It's unprecedented and hard to comprehend.

The world has turned upside down. Businesses are ordered to close. Schools have shut down, and in many states and countries, unless you are considered an essential employee, you are ordered to stay home.

The world, which can be daunting at times, has come together as one to battle this.

We are using platforms like social media and Zoom. The crisis is teaching us to stay connected despite having no physical interaction.

There is no telling when everyday life will feel normal again. For now, this is normal. One day, though, we will return to playing sports, eating out at restaurants, attending school and social activities.

Despite all the negative that comes from this pandemic, it is teaching us to never take anything for granted. To be kind to one another. To have an open mind and focus on well-being.

Having been a part of Special Olympics for nearly two decades, I know all too well that there's more to being an athlete than just the game itself. The events taking place have shined a light on the biggest lesson of all from Special Olympics—it's bigger than sports. Being an athlete means empowering those around us and making the words “let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” come to life.

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