With the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles this summer, fans from around the globe are coming out to cheer on the athletes. We caught up with four Olympians who are not only here for the games, but to help support a cause that’s important to them.
Hannah Teter is the kind of professional athlete who sells maple syrup to help impoverished communities in Kenya. Staying true to her Vermont roots while helping others in need is one of Teter’s core beliefs as she serves as a Special Olympics Global Ambassador while balancing her multiple charities and career as a gold-medalist Olympian and record-breaking snowboarder.
Teter describes being involved with Special Olympics as a, “match made in heaven,” and it’s a cause that is close to her heart we well. Teter grew up with a brother with special needs, and hopes her brother, who is an avid bowler, will be able to participate in next summer’s Special Olympics. She continues to champion the acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities after seeing the challenges he dealt with firsthand.
“I always just saw the difficulties he faced and the exclusion he went through, and that always ate at me,” Teter said about her brother.
As a Special Olympics Global Ambassador for a little over a year and a half now, Teter has created events to not only help her brother feel more accepted, but also Special Olympics athletes from around the world.
At a panel she was speaking on in South Korea, Teter had the idea to create a Unified Slalom race at the Winter X Games.
“I had [this] realization there. I had just come from X Games and I was like, ‘Why not have an event for Special Olympics at X Games?’ because athletes are extreme, and they’re just as talented as everybody else, and why not have it there?” Teter said.
The race involves professional athletes who are paired with Special Olympics athletes competing in a relay that is medaled. Although it took two years to create, the Unified Relay is now becoming a tradition as it is slated to repeat for the second time ever at the 2016 Winter X Games.
The unity between people of various backgrounds that sports foster is something that Teter believes in and attempts to incorporate through her philanthropy that crosses borders. Teter’s global fan base is not only interested in who she is as an athlete, but as a philanthropist as well. The global impact of sports was the topic of the panel that Teter participated in at the 4th Doha GOALS Forum in Los Angeles where she discussed the role sports have in raising the profile and potential of emerging economies.
Teter will be seeing the impact of sports from athletes around the world this week as she watches some of the Special Olympics World Games competitions and participates in the Unified games as well.
Teter’s advice for the athletes competing this week: “Going in healthy and strong, you always feel 110% better than if you’re just doing your sport. “
Advice Teter will be taking to heart as she prepares for the upcoming Winter X Games and Winter Olympics in 2018.
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On July 28, you could find gold-medalist short track speed skater, Apolo Ohno, spending his afternoon playing a Unified Badminton doubles match with Special Olympics athlete Filbert Canete, from Cebu, Philippines, against Nancy O’Dell and her partner.
“He carried the team, I’m not gonna lie, he was amazing, this guy is so good. And we won both of our matches, so I’m ready for the final. I’ve been mentally preparing for this all day,” Ohno said about his partner after the game.
As a Special Olympics Global Ambassador for five years, Ohno has been deeply involved in the Special Olympics World Games here in Los Angeles, one of his favorite cities. Through playing in Unified matches to walking in the Opening Ceremonies with the team from Mongolia, Ohno is advocating the message of inclusion through the sporting event.
“It’s not just about sport, [the athletes] have access to health-related activities for their eyesight, for their ears, for their speech, for their dental hygiene. I mean it really spans across the globe. It’s more than sport and that’s what we’re trying to push here at the Special Olympics,” Ohno said.
Through the Special Olympics’ Healthy Athlete program that provides free health screening clinics, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.
Ohno urges residents of Los Angeles to do their best to make an effort to come out to the games and get a chance to not only see the athletes compete, but also join the movement of inclusion and acceptance that the Special Olympics promotes.
“We’re reaching out, that’s what this common theme here of the Special Olympics is, ‘Reach Out LA,’ and to be the change that we want.” Ohno said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is get the local community here in Los Angeles to really reach out, take part, and see why this organization and what we believe in is so special.”
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Also a Special Olympics Global Ambassador, Yuna Kim, cited by many figure skating experts as a perfect figure skater, finds herself sharing commonalities with many of the Special Olympics athletes that she has worked with over the years and now gets the chance to watch at this summer’s World Games.
The gold-medalist Olympian described how seeing the Special Olympics athletes from the Korean basketball team made her realize that these athletes work just as hard and play just as hard as any professional athlete does.
“Seeing these athletes getting disappointed after a loss or getting frustrated, she can really connect with that because she was an athlete herself,” Kim’s translator said. “What she really learned is that, ‘Hey there’s nothing really different between those who have intellectual disabilities and those who don’t have intellectual disabilities.’”
One of Kim’s fondest memories as a Global Ambassador was getting the chance to teach young figure skaters back in Korea and act as their mentor. After hearing more about the Special Olympics, Kim has made it part of her mission to make a difference in the lives of children and athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Kim has a few words of advice for the athletes she feels she shares a kindred spirit with: “There’s not many times that they’ll have this opportunity to get to compete in the games, come here to Los Angeles. So just to enjoy themselves, and don’t worry about the results,” Kim’s translator said.
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The most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, Michelle Kwan’s involvement with the Special Olympics began at a young age. Beginning in her early teens volunteering, Kwan, “fell in love with the Special Olympics family,” and got more involved over the years. Now she serves as Treasurer on the Special Olympics’ board of directors.
Kwan recounted an Uzbekistan rhythmic gymnast’s performance that she saw earlier in the day. The athlete threw her arms out when she was finished in the Special Olympics pose, and gave a huge hug to her coach.
“It just was her victory. I know that she worked so hard to get here. So much dedication, so much inner strength, and to be here in Los Angeles, to represent her country and do so amazing well. It’s a moment that all athletes, that I think everybody can feel,” Kwan said.
It’s this attitude that the Special Olympics athletes embody that Kwan hopes people take away from the games and incorporate into their actions. People have so much to learn from those with intellectual disabilities, and they teach Kwan something everyday.
“Special Olympic athletes teach me so much about courage, about hope, about having fun. I mean, I see our athletes training and I see the fierce competition, but also celebrating each other, and there’s so much respect with all our athletes, that they might not win, but they say, participating is winning,” Kwan said.
Kwan urges the Special Olympics athletes participating this week to simply savor the moment and have fun as they are cheered on by the supporters from around the globe. More than just getting the chance to compete in front of a global audience, the Special Olympics affords opportunities that make a permanent impact in these athletes’ lives.
“Special Olympics gives an opportunity for our athletes, people with intellectual disabilities, to make friends, to participate in sports, and have that opportunity and feel accepted and included in society. That’s why the whole Games, the whole week is incredible, where fans come to cheer them on, and the whole movement is just spectacular,” Kwan said.
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