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Unified Competition: I Learned It’s All About Skills, Fellowship and Understanding

Man standing and smiling with his hands clasped and a man looking over his shoulder.

The oath that Special Olympics athletes recite at competitions large and small is brief and sincere: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” But for three decades, while coaching, volunteering and cheering for my son, Jonathan, and his fellow athletes, I could relate to the first part more than the second.

Sports, after all, is all about winning, isn’t it? Why practice unless practice makes perfect? “Winning isn’t everything,” the saying goes, “it’s the only thing.” Bravery never really enters that equation.

So when Jonathan and I were randomly selected to join Team Virginia for the Special Olympics USA Games this spring, my focus turned to practicing, improving—and winning. We were to play alternate-shot golf, going up against athletes and “unified partners” (people without intellectual disabilities) like myself from other states and Caribbean nations. We would settle, I told myself, for nothing less than gold medals.

What I learned from spending a week in the blazing Florida heat with thousands of Special Olympics athletes was something very different. Winning isn’t the only thing; it’s not even the most important thing. What matters more, these special athletes showed me, are positive attitudes, selfless sportsmanship, and equal treatment for everyone, regardless of athletic ability—or disability.

Those qualities were needed from the start of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Logistical nightmares abounded, including luggage delays and long lines for meals and buses. The much-anticipated opening ceremonies played out under a melting sun, made bearable not only by the fellowship on display but by hundreds of volunteers spraying mist, flinging cold hand towels and tossing water bottles to the athletes, coaches and officials.

Starting the next day, thousands of athletes spread out around the Orlando area for a week of soccer and softball, bocce and bowling, tennis and track, golf and gymnastics, paddle boarding and powerlifting, swimming and surfing, basketball, volleyball, flag football and more. While motivated by competition, what was most visible was camaraderie. While their sports talents were impressive, what set them apart was their sportsmanship. And the effort they exhibited was worthy of celebration, regardless of the end result.

A soccer team may have been getting slaughtered, but its players still focused on the fundamentals they were taught. The other team may have been far superior, but it didn’t run up the score. And when a player wound up on the ground, the first hand of assistance usually came from the other side.

Later, when the athletes had free time together, fellowship was on full display. Gender, race, ethnicity and, of course, disability became almost invisible amid the smiles, hugs and laughter.

Not a moment was wasted on the controversies and calamities of the day. Here we were in Florida, cauldron of political controversy, where the state had threatened to fine Special Olympics $27.5 million unless it dropped its COVID vaccine mandate for participants. But the topic was rarely raised on the fields of play.

Even when COVID filtered into some state delegations, the virus was met with steady resolve rather than fear or sorrow. Athletes, coaches and officials who were infected simply quarantined or, in some instances, departed early.

There was a purity to the enjoyment of athletics on display on the courts and courses that is in short supply in the wider world of sports. It wasn’t about seven- and eight-figure salaries or commercial contracts. What motivated these athletes was simple pride. You could see it in their eyes, and you could hear it from the sound of clinking medals around their necks.

That is how I learned to be a good sport, rather than a gold medalist. I had come determined to win; after all, hadn’t we practiced enough for our golf game to improve? Alas, on the third day of competition, everything fell apart, and we hit one bad shot after another. At several points, I dropped my club in frustration—not a good look for a partner and role model.

In the end, Jonathan and I managed to win silver medals in 9-hole, alternate-shot golf, within a division of similarly skilled athletes and partners. The hardware was nice, but the real reward for me was in learning what the athletes already knew: how to be “brave in the attempt.”

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