A Little More: Olympics, Special and otherwise
My middle son Avery is sitting too close to the television, which is an old fight and not one I'm particularly interested in revisiting at the moment. Like most of America, we've watched the dazzling opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing and we're hooked. I'm rooting for the moms: weightlifter Melanie Roach whose son has autism, and gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, who moved to Germany for her son's oncology treatments.
Avery has 2 favorite events: swimming and gymnastics. When the athletes line up across the pool, he counts, "One, two, three," and then says and signs the word "Go!" The sign for go is thumbs up, index fingers pointing forward, like a starter's gun going off.
If Avery's countdown matches the actual one, and the swimmers dive on his "Go!" he brings his hands to his face and covers it, shy, giggling, and extra-pleased with himself. Avery is 5-years-old. He's my middle son, a fraternal twin, and he has Down syndrome.
Having Down syndrome means, in this instance, that the gymnastics events of the Olympics are one place where he can watch other people who are as flexible as he is. He rolls around our carpet and spreads his legs into splits, or folds himself in half, pulling his feet up to his ears. For good measure, he flips back over and kicks his leg up into the air, so that his toes are almost touching the top of his head.
And when he's finished, he jumps to standing and raises his hands in the air, like the Olympians he sees on television. He waves to the crowd (usually me) then struts off into the kitchen, which is my cue to burst into applause. He returns, shy and giggling again, and dives into my lap for a hug.
Avery is healthy and has had excellent medical care since his birth. As his family, we've received help in the form of physical therapy and speech therapy and connections through our local child development center. We've been able to meet and enjoy other families who live with Down syndrome at annual events, like the upcoming Buddy Walks, which usually take place in the fall and are organized by the more than 275 affiliates across the country. All these things are a normal and natural part of living with disability in the United States; but these rights are not available everywhere in the world.
Before Avery came into my life, like most people, I was aware of another Olympics, a different one, a special one. But it wasn't until I was watching the Beijing Olympics with Avery that I began to understand their importance. The Special Olympics is an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the life of children and adults with intellectual disabilities, by encouraging them to become physically fit through sports training and competition.
And with more than 500,000 athletes from China, more than 210,000 in India, nearly 550,000 in the United States, 600 in Afghanistan and 4,400 in Rwanda, the Special Olympics is more than a sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities--it's a powerful force for social change.
Before this year, my favorite part of the Olympics used to be the medals ceremonies. I loved the athletes for their single-minded pursuit of excellence; when they'd lower their heads ever-so-slightly to receive the medals around their necks, tears always came to my own eyes. To me, the athletes represented perfection, or at least, the human endeavor to obtain it.
But now, watching the Olympics in Beijing this year, with Avery twirling and spinning across our carpet to the music of the floor exercises, or seeing his delight and excitement when the swimmers kick and splash their way to the final lap, I can't help but think that I've been missing the point.
I recalled the opening ceremony--the thousands of athletes marching proudly around the venue. I remembered an announcer commented that most of the participants will not receive medals; that in fact, many countries have never received any medals. And yet they were there, part of it, their dreams shining as brightly as anyone's.
They remind me of Avery, and the extra hours of hard work it took him to learn to walk. Or the amazing concentration it takes for him to speak the word "Go." Or the truly remarkable resilience of the human spirit. It's not the medal that matters to me, anymore. It's where you start, and how you finish, and what you make of the journey in between.