Special Olympics – Swimming: Please Let Me Win
Saturday morning was a bit chilly. First time I can recall wearing something on top of a T-shirt for quite a while. I’m sitting in a hall next to the Veneto Club in Bulleen (Melbourne) waiting for the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics Victoria State Games to commence. The local Manningham Shire Big Band is in full swing, and when the athletes enter the hall to beating drums and a boisterous brass section I reckon there are enough smiles in the place to hold up the roof.
Our daughter Kate is representing her club, Melbourne Inner East, in the swimming events. If she can win a gold medal in one of her events she will go to the national Games to be held later in the year in Adelaide. Butterfly is the best chance. But rather than spending the pre-carnival moments imprisoned by nerves and thoughts of what might be won or lost, she is consumed by the buzz of friendship and giggling in her group of swimming comrades. Embraces are given out freely, hugs, back slaps, and even the odd hair ruffle are all part of the routine. This is pure fun and delight.
The athletes’ oath is read out during the Opening Ceremony:
“Please let me win,
But If I can’t win,
Let me be brave in the attempt.”
I’ve volunteered my services across the weekend and been allotted the poisoned chalice of “Check Starter”. The Check Starter’s responsibility is to ensure that the right swimmers are in the right lane, that they know what event they are swimming in (ie, freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly or backstroke), and that they understand how many laps they need to complete. Because it’s a 25 metre pool I ran out of fingers and toes when calculating the laps required to complete the 800 metres freestyle. But that was the least of my problems.
The intellectual disabilities that the athletes have are many and varied, from quite profound to rather slight, so the explanations required for each athlete could last 3 seconds or 2 minutes. This is how a conversation went with one of the athletes. I’ll call him Con.
Me – “Do you know what lane you’re supposed to be in Con?”
Con – “Yes I do, sir,” says Con in an American accent. Con always speaks with an American accent. His parents are mystified as to why.
Me – “Lane 2. Yes?”
Con – “Correct”.
Me – “Then why are you standing up here next to lane 8?”
Con – “Oh yes. Lane 8. I like lane 8.”
Me – “But someone else is swimming in lane 8. You need to go back to lane 2.”
Con – “Lane 2 is for losers.”
Me – “Maybe, but it’s your lane. Do your best.”
I physically escort Con back to lane 2. He doesn’t mind. The race is about to commence. He stands at the ready, waiting for the starters instructions, looking at the roof and muttering to himself. The whistle blows for the swimmers to climb onto the blocks. Con lifts up both arms, then cups his right hand around his mouth and makes a very loud trumpeting sound, as if Her Royal Highness, the Quanger herself, is about the enter the stadium. Then he bellows out,
“Lane 2!! The winners’ lane!!”
The gun is fired and Con plunges in. He starts badly then completely slackens off. He comes last by miles. But when he makes his final touch against the wall, I can still hear him talking away to himself under water (fair dinkum), happy as a lark. When he exits the pool, I catch him on the way past.
“Good try,” I say as cheerfully as possible.
“Yes sir,” says Con like that Sergeant Major in the military. “Thank you for lane 2.”
This is pretty much my weekend. Brilliant banter. Exhausting banter. To this young woman, I need to be gentle and quiet, then to another I must cajole and jolly along, then later still I need to get a bit stroppy and pull a belligerent bloke back into line. Its delicate work. Emotionally draining. And magnificently rewarding. There are heaps of smiles, some tears, enough hugs to bottle, and huge cheers from the full house of spectators for all kinds of efforts. First, second or third is the aim for most competitors. Others just want to get to the end of the pool. Their victory is just as great. Twenty-five metres of water is a frightening prospect for some. When they conquer it, they are Edmund Hillary or Neil Armstrong. They are alive!
Kate has a crack in the 50 metres butterfly but can only manage second. She swims well. Beaten by a better athlete on the day. Sadness descends. Her big chance to go to the Nationals in 2017 is blown. I can’t go and give her a hug as I need to organise the next group of athletes, but I see her wrap the towel around herself and saunter out of the pool area; head down, tears floating to the floor like autumn leaves, shoulders hunched. It’s the walk of the defeated. It pains me. But that’s life. Better to fight and be defeated than to never fight at all. That’s what my old man (Kate’s Grandpa) used to say. In a macabre sort of way, her being sad about losing a swimming race is a delightful distraction from her other difficulties, which are not insubstantial. Down Syndrome is a many edged sword and some of the edges are cruelly blunt.
But here is the beauty of sport. It’s a practice run at living. We fly the kite but sometimes it crashes to the ground and we must learn to get up again, disability or no disability. Kate’s sporting kite crashed today and she has to deal with that. She’ll recover, and what’s more, every time her kite does crash she’ll handle it better.
The Special Olympics organisation is an extraordinary thing. Started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the USA, a remarkable woman whose energy and zest for ideas was almost unmatched (perhaps the wrong Kennedy was President), it spread to Australia in the early 1970s, and now provides wonderful opportunities for people like our little Kate; opportunities to shine, opportunities to learn, and perhaps most importantly, opportunities to teach the rest of us.
If you only watch one video this week make sure it’s this one. Kennedy Shriver’s “You have earned it” speech in this video is one of the most brilliant ever made. It goes toe to toe with JFK’s “Ask Not” effort. It is powerful and enlightening. It should be the story of all humanity.
Click on the link, then click on the little hyperlink that says “watch”.