A Special Swim Lesson

Special Olympics 1

I had a pretty special reason to volunteer at the Special Olympics Arizona Fall Games October 19. His name is Matt and he’s my cousin. Matt has a very severe case of cerebral palsy. He’s wheelchair-bound and has been his whole life. He’s been in and out of the hospital for corrective surgeries and procedures since he was little. His reading comprehension and other intellectual capabilities—his book smarts—decreased significantly after elementary school.

By societal standards, Matt is considered disabled, but I know better.

Matt and I have spent years playing video games together. Donkey Kong was always his favorite—or at least it was when we played together. He’s memorized and can sing along to almost any song performed by Barry Manilow, Journey, or Neil Diamond—which I didn’t appreciate when I was younger, but I absolutely love now. There was even a Neil Diamond cake for his birthday one year! Matt worked at a pizza parlor in his hometown in Ohio during his teenage years and he was a favorite among regulars. Despite his learning difficulties, he has his high school diploma. He’s had a girlfriend or two, too. And to this day, he’s got the best smile I’ve ever seen.

What Matt has taught me through the years is that when the “abled” have faith and give opportunity to those considered “disabled,” everyone wins. Those with physical or mental disabilities are given the chance to thrive—and they do. Often, we don’t give them enough credit for what they’re capable of, but when we do, they succeed and their happiness is contagious. They provide such joy—and much-needed perspective—to everyone around them.

Volunteering for the Special Olympics Arizona Fall Games was a no-brainer. I knew what I would see, feel, and experience. And deep down, I knew I’d be doing it for Matt.

I arrived at the Surprise Aquatics Center for the swimming events around 9:45 am and clearly, I was late to the party. There were tents set up everywhere with games, information about healthy living, and free giveaways. Special Olympics athletes were walking around wet, meaning they’d already participated in morning heats. The energy was awesome!

I was there for lunch duty. Two other volunteers greeted me and explained that we had three major duties: to keep three kiddie pools in front of the tent stocked with ice, water, and Gatorade to keep everyone hydrated; to hand out free samples of Snapea Crisps; and to deliver prepackaged lunches to the competing teams.

Special Olympics 2

Hands down, the best part of my day was asking athletes about their races. They were so excited to show me their gold, silver, and bronze medals. Most of the athletes reported their individual times down to the second and recounted their races from the day before. All of them got high fives from me.

I, luckily, got to escape my booth to check out a few of the races. The dedication and determination of the swimmers reminded me of international Olympics athletes. They were there for the gold and they would try their damnedest to make it happen. The way they cheered each other on was really something, too—so supportive of each other.

Special Olympics 3

Back at my booth, I watched athletes walk by with brand new shoes either on their feet or in boxes. Turns out, volunteers from Midwestern University were on site to give the athletes free foot exams. If the podiatrists-in-training determined the athletes needed a new pair of shoes, they gave them a new pair—absolutely free—courtesy of Famous Footwear. (Yes, add that business onto your list of karmic places to shop!)

When I got home from volunteering, I was exhausted, but I also knew I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

My cousin Matt lives in Ohio with my extended family, but when I was slinging Gatorade and listening to stories of swim meets and personal successes, I felt just a little bit closer to him. And to me, that’s more than enough reason to volunteer.

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