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Athlete Leadership Prepares for Unified Employment

Special Olympics North America Medium Blog, October 2021

In over a decade of participation in Special Olympics, I’ve learned many athlete leadership skills that have helped me, and any athlete, move into an inclusive workplace. In today’s blog piece I will share with you five Special Olympics Athlete Leadership skills that have prepared me for my current employment at United Airlines, which includes: public speaking and interviews, getting outside of myself, having a global perspective, taking initiative, and valuing all members of a team.

The first leadership skill is how public speaking can directly help with job interviews. The art of public speaking skills helped me succeed in the job interview for my current role at United Airlines, which is a platinum partner of Special Olympics.

Daniel with his arm around a young woman (Hanna Joy Atkinson).

At Special Olympics, I have had coaching on how to be an effective public speaker including having eye contact, showing interest in who I am speaking to, being prepared, and the difference between giving a speech versus dialoguing with others.

Thanks to those skills, I had a successful job interview with United Airlines at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Two years ago, the “job interview” day arrived. I put “job interview” in quotes because we would soon learn this day was much more than an interview. As I traveled with my dad, who joined me for moral support, to O’Hare International Airport’s (ORD) United Airlines Terminal 1, I thought hundreds of Special Olympics athletes would be interviewing. It wasn’t until I and three other Special Olympics athletes were led into the Customer Service Manager’s conference room that we learned we were selected specifically by Special Olympics Illinois staff to apply. We then were taken individually for a “get-to-know-you” job interview. United Airlines Human Resources and Customer Service Managers had one objective: to learn for themselves whether what Special Olympics staff had told them about us was true.

Daniel standing next to a man in an airplane.

The second skill that prepares me for the workplace is how public speaking has helped me on the job get outside of myself. The skill of getting outside of myself helps me relate to people and be of service to them.

The Athlete Leadership training I have had emphasized it’s not just about me but all others in the movement. At United Airlines, I must observe and listen to which customers might need the most help and approach them.

The third skill is how being an athlete leader has helped me to learn more about Special Olympics as an international movement. My inclusive workplace at United is a global airline that connects with people and unites the world. The global movement at Special Olympics and the global airline at United has helped me to have more of a global perspective in everything I do.

Daniel standing behind a podium speaking.

The Special Olympics movement is international and I’ve been lucky to be in a position as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger (SSIGM)and get to know other SSIGM’s who reside in over half a dozen other countries.

At United Airlines, I must be empathetic and patient with people at one of the busiest airports in the world, as travelers from different cultures come from all over the world.

Two months ago, a customer compliment was delivered to my email inbox. It all began when I was interacting with a United customer named Paul. First, Paul had observed me assisting other travelers before he had an opportunity to interact with me with just minutes left to find the gate and board his flight.

“Not sure how I can express my gratitude to you for your professionalism,” said Paul. “Please, stay the course, and never change your commitment, concern, and compassion for clients as they attempt to navigate through the concourses of chaotic O’Hare.”

To my surprise, United Airlines Managing Director Jonna McGrath sent me a letter thanking me for the excellent service I provided to Paul.

Daniel and Hanna standing with a group of United Air employees.

“Please accept my personal thanks for taking care of our customers in such a gracious and professional manner,” said Jonna. “Great customer service is very important in our business. But it’s the little things like taking that extra step or an extra minute to ensure the customer has what they need, that will help us outperform our competitors.”

Jonna said she really appreciated my extra efforts and noted to me in a letter, “it’s service like this that will keep our customers dedicated and loyal to United Airlines.”

The fourth skill is how I’ve had to carry responsibility as an Athlete Leader and how that carries over to the workplace and taking initiative at work.

For example, in Special Olympics, I take the initiative of co-hosting our bimonthly Athlete Leadership Council meetings, attending weekly Athlete Leadership Executive Team meetings, and co-presenting Athlete Leadership training. During any of these Athlete Leadership roles, I must prepare and be responsible for knowing what I am going to say, showing up early and practicing what I am going to say.

At United Airlines, I took it upon myself to create the Service Ambassador Sign in and Sign Out document for myself and my coworkers.

The fifth and final skill I’ve learned is to value all the other members of the team. By being an Athlete Leader, it is important to value everybody on the team regardless of the role each person plays.

In Special Olympics, I value my teammates in swimming, basketball, and on the Athlete Leadership Council Executive team. As an Athlete Leader I must be a role model for my teammates but at the same time cannot act like I’m better than them.

At United, I have one main manager who I report to (shout-out to Assistant Manager of Customer Service at ORD Steve Suchorabski!), but then there are a lot of other managers who are in a way also my bosses and I must pick my way carefully and be diplomatic.

I chronicled the first year of my unified employment at United Airlines on Unified at Work, an Original Podcast Series I co-produced on Special Chronicles in collaboration with United Airlines and supported by Bridge, one of United’s Business Resource Groups that is connecting people of all abilities. Unified at Work is a series of conversations about the meaning of unified employment. Earlier this month, we premiered Season 2 featuring my chat with Oscar Munoz, former United Airlines Chairman and CEO.

“It’s simply impossible to listen to Daniel- even for just a few moments—and not have your heart lifted and your sense of hope reassured,” said Oscar Munoz. Subscribe and listen to more than 17 episodes of the Unified at Work Podcast Series on

Sign the Inclusion pledge at which helps Special Olympics empower individuals to ensure no one is forgotten during this critical time around the world. This is a Pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged, and the bullied—over overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion. #ChooseToInclude

Join us in taking your athlete leadership skills into the inclusive workplace. Let’s celebrate the abilities, gifts, and talents of people with intellectual disabilities, like myself, in bringing athlete leadership skills and inclusion to work.