It was a splashy, ugly start. The oars of our two-man kayak slapped the water eagerly, but there was no rhythm. The boats on either side of us fought through the same water, striving for the lead. I restrained myself from looking to see where we were in the pack, trying instead to focus on Will’s tempo in front of me. Fifty meters down the lane, we hit our stride. Our strokes synced up and we took off.
Before the race, I told Will that I was nervous. But he reassured me. “Being nervous is O.K.,” he said. “It will help you paddle faster. Most of all, let’s have fun.” I was invited to participate in this exhibition race with Will to promote the sport he loves. Will is an exceptional athlete. At this point in the week, Will has been competing against the best in his sport from around the world. He has already won two medals and, after our race, will go on to win two more.
Will also has an intellectual disability. This summer I had the honor of kayaking with him during a unified sports experience at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. These games were Will’s first; he competed locally and nationally to qualify, and he joined 7,000 other athletes from 165 countries for the world competition.
Started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962 in her suburban Washington, D.C., backyard, the Special Olympics are now the largest sporting and humanitarian event in the world for people with special needs. They were also the largest event for sports of any kind in 2015.
Mrs. Shriver was inspired by her sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. She felt that all people deserve a chance to learn, to play and to compete, just as she and Rosemary had played, sailed and run together growing up. Well ahead of her time, Mrs. Shriver knew what many now know: Sports have the ability to bring people together, to empower them, to help them feel their dignity and to teach those who were ignored by many schools and doctors at the time that they matter and can be more than they ever dreamed. Mrs. Shriver, without knowing it at the time, started a revolution.
Unified sports at the Special Olympics integrate people with and without intellectual disabilities to play sports on the same team, or in my case, in the same boat. As Will and I prepared for our race, he responded to my basic questions about stroke speed and hand placement. But his finest advice was this: “The best way to start a race is with patience and generosity.” I trust Will. He knows his sport, and he seems to savor the chance to teach me. He said that if I paddled, he would steer.
Cheering for Others
And so, Will steered. I attempted to keep up with his incredibly fast stroke speed, and toward the end of our race, we charged down the 200-meter straightaway to a roaring crowd. As we neared the end I was exhausted and soaking wet. But under Will’s direction and coaching we carried on. “Keep it up, Matt, you are doing great! This is so fun!” I was not so sure. My 6-foot-3-inch frame and terrible coordination were not well suited to a kayak.
Still, we finished in first place. I was completely out of breath, veins pumping with adrenaline, excited from the thrill of it all. But I did not expect what happened next. Will steered our boat around to cheer on the other teams as they finished. “We need to cheer on the other teams,” he said. “Especially lane three—they have no one to cheer for them.”
I am struck by my own selfishness in this moment. All I could think of was our glorious win and my exhausted muscles. But Will, with his priorities in the right place, reminded me to cheer on the other teams, with a special concern for those without fans in the stands. He cheered on the competition with the same enthusiasm he showed as he steered our boat to victory. I was also struck by what a radical notion this was: he thought nothing of the victory. Instead, he knew that once we finished, we needed to celebrate the others and cheer for those who needed it. I was aware of how starkly different this is from any other major sporting event in the world. Cheer on the opponent? Have consideration for them, and know who has fans here and who doesn’t? Where was I? I was taking part in something special, a revolution of the heart that Mrs. Shriver began all those years ago.
In a world of toxic divisions, vitriolic political speeches about immigrants, racism and police brutality, I have been privileged to see the opposite. I have seen a place where differences do not divide but unite. A place where the values of our world are flipped on their head, where beauty, strength and success take on new meaning. A place where the marginalized are not considered weak, broken and inessential but rather valuable, beautiful and competitive. The Special Olympics are a place where the athletes do not receive patronizing, pity-filled platitudes but where they teach, through their joy, what it means to be human, to love and to compete fairly and fiercely.
I saw Israeli and Palestinian athletes hold hands after they finished their race. I saw a place where language differences did not inhibit relationship or friendship. A place where “the other” was not feared and viewed with suspicion. A place where a hijab or wheelchair did not define the person using it. A place where heads of state, movie stars and celebrities came to cheer on the most marginalized group in the world. I have seen an image of the kingdom of God where all are welcomed, celebrated, encouraged, cheered on to victory and told they are indeed “special.” A place where there is no “them” and “us.” There is just us.
And as my time with Will taught me, we are all in the same boat.