After more than two long years of separation due to Covid-19, what better place to be able to bring over 5500 athletes together for in-person competition but the Happiest Place on Earth – Disney World!! I’m not even sure I can describe this week, but I will do my best.
Let’s begin with the Opening Ceremony. I had the opportunity to not just attend the 2022 USA Games Opening Ceremony but to be involved in them. Several days before, fellow SSIGM Daniel Smrokowski and I were asked to be the announcers who would announce the delegations that would participate. It was so amazing to hear our voices over the speakers in that stadium. I was also invited to join the emcees on stage to introduce singer and songwriter Sara Bareilles. Boy was I nervous in front of all those teams and families. I prayed I wouldn’t forget my lines! My mom, dad, and sister had seats behind the stage, so I was able to see them and get those hugs before I walked up on the stage. But the biggest surprise I never saw coming was to dance on the center stage with Donald Duck himself! Not only was Opening Ceremony incredibly exciting but I was so proud to be seen not just as an individual with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), but as a contributor to this incredible event. This is what Unified Leadership is all about.
As if participating in the Opening Ceremony was not exciting enough, I was able to see my Hawaiian Ohana there. I was so happy to see them that, I’ll confess, I burst into tears when I saw my mentor and friend Nip Ho, Senior Vice President of Programs for Special Olympics Hawaii. During the week, I was able to see Hui’o Hawaii compete in bocce. My friends and Special Olympics Hawaii staff Cindy Ujimori and former teammates Ho’opio Balaaz, Jon Katsuda, Marcelino Galdones, and Timothy Renken were all overly excited to see me, just as I was to see them. It was such a happy reunion. A hui’ o, until we meet again, Hawai’i.
The day ended with dinner with the Special Olympics International Board of Directors and the Global Athlete Leadership Council. It was really wonderful to meet up with fellow athlete leaders; some I’ve only met on Zoom. I was even asked to sing. Guess what song I chose? If you said, “a Disney one”, you would be right! “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid seemed like the perfect choice.
My journey continued the next day by meeting up with our founding partner, Coca-Cola. Daniel, Brandon, and I co-led a Unified Leadership Training for Coca-Cola staff. As a facilitator who has been conducting Unified Leadership trainings via Zoom, this was a great step back into “in-person” trainings. Everyone enjoyed our interactive presentation. I know I did. Thank you, Coca-Cola, for all your support!
As a Health Messenger, I was overly excited to be able to lead tours of the Healthy Athletes program to Coca-Cola staff later that day and Bank of America later in the week. With each tour, I felt like a professional tour guide. My fellow SSIGM Hanna Atkinson and I explained the seven disciplines that were there for all our athletes to attend. We also shared impactful stories about athletes receiving their first pair of glasses ever from Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes® and receiving a hearing device from Healthy Hearing for the first time. These are life-changing moments and thanks to the Golisano Foundation’s support, our Healthy Athletes program continues to change the health outcomes for many of our athletes. I am so inspired to share the magnificent work our Healthy Athletes program accomplishes.
We have a Park Day: Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, here I come!! I had NEVER been to Animal Kingdom before, so that was a real treat. I can honestly say that the highlight for me was the ride from Pandora. Boy, what a line we waited in, but I’m so glad to say that it was worth it! I had a lot of fun there. The second park we went to is my all-time favorite: Magic Kingdom! While I loved going to Magic Kingdom, the highlight for me was seeing my sister Niki there. She flew in from Hawaii just to see me. The last time we were at Disney World, she was 12 and I was 10! Hard to believe that so much time has gone by so quickly. Being at Disney World with her again was a dream come true. I’m so grateful that we got to go again for something as incredible as the 2022 USA Games. I will treasure this moment forever.
While visiting the parks was an absolute blast, my next assignment, the next day, was truly an honor. I was asked to do an Arbinger Film Interview at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Stadium. I was both excited and nervous but as the interview got going, it was exciting to share about my life before Special Olympics and the journey that led me to find Special Olympics. There were also questions about my roles within Special Olympics as a Health Messenger and as an SSIGM, not only what I do in those roles but what impact I hope to have. Then, I was able to share about Unified Leadership & the trainings I have been co-facilitating. Unified Leadership is a training that teaches leaders without disabilities to value and learn from people with IDD and to see people with IDD as contributors, leaders, & people to learn from. In the trainings, we learn how to recognize behaviors that are non-inclusive, as well as give examples & suggestions on how to create environments where people with IDD get opportunities to have meaningful jobs and roles. But the best part? I was able to interact with the Arbinger staff in person.
The day continued with awards ceremonies for athletics. Athletes from the US and Caribbean came to compete at the USA Games in athletics. Meeting all these amazing athletes was just an honor. I loved watching the teams compete, but presenting them their awards was more than I could have imagined. I also thought that it was so amazing that all these countries were here at the USA Games. I love how we can all come together as one to compete in sports. I can see that Special Olympics is true to its mission and I am so proud to be a part of the Special Olympics world. What a wonderful way to demonstrate unity and inclusion.
As a wonderful ending to an amazing day, I attended my first ever surfing event. I thought it was such a great idea to use the wave pool at the water park as the ‘ocean’ for the competitions. Special Olympics continues to break down the barriers of what IS possible for persons with IDD by thinking out of the box. I believe our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, paved the way for this kind of thinking when she brought that huge pool into Soldier Field for the first Special Olympics competition. Special Olympics is the place I learned WE CAN, I CAN.
The next day began by getting to be a volunteer at the Young Athletes Festival! I thought this event was so much fun and well organized. There were several stations set up for the young athletes to participate in. I loved helping guide the children through them and cheering them on. I was so touched to see these children having this opportunity to play games and have fun, but most importantly, to know it’s ok to be just who they are. Everyone looked so happy. This was inclusion at its best.
My last event for the day was the Youth Leadership Experience volunteer shadow. I have heard of ‘shadowing’ & I have ‘shadowed’ someone to learn something, but today, I would be the one who was being ‘shadowed.’ I have never been ‘shadowed’ before. So, I was a bit nervous about my new role. Would I mess up? Would I know the answers to questions I would be asked? But when I met my Unified pair from Special Olympics Arizona, my fears were put to rest. Brendon and Brigham were wonderful. They asked me how I got involved in Special Olympics, about my role as an SSIGM and as a Health Messenger. I was so impressed with how well they worked together. I thought it perfectly demonstrated what a Unified partnership should look like. Way to go Unified Champion Schools!
The last day is here and it’s time to go home. My journey to Florida began with my new Special Olympics Texas mentor Hannah Brown. This was her first time traveling with an athlete and I was so excited to be able to share with her just how amazing it is to attend the USA Games. I told her we would meet so many wonderful people and we did. We made memories everywhere we went. It has been two years since we have been together, and it was so nice to be back in action again. I will never forget my time there at the USA Games in Orlando and that we were at Disney World! But this isn’t where my journey will end. The journey to an inclusive world has far to go but I believe that all of us as Special Olympics athletes have left a beautiful image of what true inclusion looks like to the world that was around us this week. And what better place to spread the message of INCLUSION than at The Happiest Place on Earth!