Saturday, August 22, 2015

What I Got Out of the Special Olympics World Games

One day my memory is gonna go out the window.  It happens with old age.  That's how I'm able to convince my grandma that events that never happened actually happened.  But when that day comes there are several events that will stick, events that are etched into my memory.  That will probably include the Warriors championship season, the birth of my little sister, our family vacation to Guatemala and a bunch of firsts throughout out my adolescence.  Maybe later on that list will include my wedding, the birth of my 1st and 3rd children and the day I buy the Golden State Warriors.  Right now I will add the 2015 Special Olympics World Games to that list of unforgettable experiences.  From July 25 to August 2nd, athletes from all over the world met in Los Angeles to compete for gold, bring awareness and spread joy.  Now the things I might say might seem a little cheesy, but I swear it's a real.  Those 9 days clearly had an effect on me and that effect can very well follow me for the rest of my life.  I wish everyone I loved had the opportunity to experience what I experienced, whether it be working on the event, volunteering, or even just going as a spectator.  I know it wasn't possible for everyone, but I'm glad at least some of my friends were able to be a part of this, in any capacity.  Go up to anyone who was along for the ride and they'll talk your ear with some of the many stories they've accumulated over that 9-day period.  Here's my story.

To be 100% honest, I didn't even know there was such a thing for the World Games for Special Olympics.  I didn't find out until I applied for my internship.  I, of course, knew about Special Olympics.  For those of you unfamiliar, here's a brief synopsis: In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John F. and Bobby Kennedy, held a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities.  At this time people with intellectual disabilities were treated like lepers.  They were ostracized, rejected and a good deal of them were institutionalized.  Shriver thought that through the power and common language of sports, people with intellectual disabilities can show the world what they are capable of.  The first World Games was in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago and the movement has grown ever since.  The aim is not to look at these athletes' disabilities, but instead to focus on their abilities.  We want to get to a place where at school, at work and in life in general we can grow to accept and include them.  Now, I had volunteered there in high school as part as my community service hours.  I knew it was a good cause but I wasn't that invested in it.  At the time, I needed the hours so I can play sports in high school.  That's why I was there and knowing it was helping someone out was icing on the cake.  But unless you fully immerse yourself into something like this, you're just not gonna get it.  I didn't really completely get why it was important for me volunteer at soup kitchens until I started to chat with the hungry at the table and listen to their stories.  (Not trying to paint myself as some kind of saint.)  Same thing applies here.  I didn't fully immerse myself in Special Olympics and so I didn't really get much out of it my first go around.

This last spring I was desperately looking for internships.  The previous summer was a giant dud.  I scratched and clawed trying to find an internship in either the sports or entertainment industry.  Nothing happened, though I thought I came close a few times.  Over the winter I thought I might have had something with NBC Universal but that didn't work out either.  I met a young woman at my college who had gotten an internship with the Clippers and looked to be on a path towards success.  I wanted to ask her what she had done to get to the point she was at and she rattled off a bunch of places she either worked or interned at.  Special Olympics was one of them and so I went home and applied.  Less than a week later I was called for an interview and I got the internship.  Now I don't want to talk about my professional experience from working for the World Games.  This isn't a job interview.  Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot of valuable experience I can take into the professional world, but the personal experience means so much more to me than anything I can ever learn about the sports industry.  The people I worked with were remarkable and so full of life.  I admired the fact that they put so much work into the World Games and they all did it with such a great attitude.  Their positive attitude robbed off on me and had me fully invested in this experience.  I didn't know a whole lot, but I knew that I wanted to give the World Games everything I had to give.  Even on the most stressful days I've never left the office being unhappy.  Most of it was because I knew what I was working for: the thought that my hard work would pay off when athletes from all over the world converge in Los Angeles for one week of competition.  But I would be denying credit if I didn't say that my co-workers and supervisors didn't inspire me.  So if anyone from the office is reading this, thank you for sharing this experience with me.

One of the great things about working at the World Games HQ is that there were several people working there that had intellectual disabilities and I was able to have amazing, genuine interactions with them I might not be able to at another workplace.  When you are able to work with, laugh with, and share stories with people who are different than you on a daily basis, you get a better understanding of them.  And one thing I understand is they aren't different from me.  The people I had the privilege of working with were hard working, capable and all around enjoyable and thoughtful people.  One person whose presence I enjoyed in particular was Marco, the in-house artist.  Marco is an incredible artist who made this lovely mosaics all for the Special Olympics World Games.  He made a boatload of them and each one was even better than the last.  Aside from being talented he was also one of the happiest people I ever met.  Every single day he was at the workplace he would go around to every cubicle, every office and high five, fist bump, or hug everyone who was there that day.  He would say hello and talk to them for a little bit and he'd be on his way.  I looked forward to seeing Marco and getting to see his smile and absorb some of that joy.  Every time I got to speak with him it was as if my batteries were recharged.  He was the type of person whose love just oozes out because he has so much left over.  I wish more people were like that.  I wish I was more like Marco.

Being in the office was great, but nowhere near as great as being on site when the World Games finally began.  I had the pleasure of being at the Opening Ceremonies at the LA Coliseum.  Something about seeing athletes from all over the globe all in the same spot in anticipation for week of competition just gets me pumped.  This was actually the biggest sporting event Los Angeles hosted since the 1984 Olympic Games (which was boycotted by the Soviets).  The Opening Ceremonies were absolutely spectacular.  Similar to the Olympics, each country came out one by one to the roar of crowd filling this ancient coliseum.  (I'm exaggerating the word "ancient" a bit.)  We got appearances from notable public figures like Oakland native, Trailblazers star Damien Lillard and First Lady Michelle Obama.  (It takes someone like me to put those two on the same playing field.)  This amazing night to kick off the World Games ended up being but a footnote to me however.  My best memories come from being at UCLA where some of the games were being held.

UCLA held football (soccer), tennis, volleyball, judo, gymnastics and baseball.  I spent a good chunk of my time at UCLA busting my ass, working.  However I knew I could not be at the Special Olympics World Games and not witness the event as fan.  Here's something that I learned: these athletes from all over the world are REAL athletes.  It's something most people don't really understand about Special Olympics.  When people picture Special Olympics they have an image of their mind of someone who is incapable.  If you spent one day at UCLA or USC that week that image would be shattered.  Take soccer for example.  I got to see a lot of soccer games throughout the week and the games I saw were as competitive as any I've seen in my life.  At Dominguez Hills we sometimes get cheap tickets to see the LA Galaxy, and MLS team.  (For those unfamiliar, the MLS is basically a retirement league where players spend their twilight seasons. Got 'em!)  The games I saw at the World Games were just as competitve as the games played by the Galaxy.  The Brazilians were superb (of course) because not being at soccer is like a sin in Brazil (I think).  I saw a game between England and Iceland and both teams went in.  When the match was over I chatted up one of the England soccer players and he was showing off all his cuts, scratches and bruises (and proclaiming his love for Mexican food) with great pride.  And that was one of the points Special Olympics wanted to get across.  We are not focusing on disabilities, we are focusing on abilities.  These are real athletes playing real sports and they really want to win.  These are also humble athletes and there was no malicious play, just good sportsmanship.  There were no borders and rivalries from countries, just friendly competition.

While on the job I spent a lot of time at the festival area where the awards ceremonies would be held.  While I thought these awards ceremonies were very long, especially because it was so hot in the LA sun, the ceremonies brought me some of the most touching memories.  The way the ceremonies worked was first place got a gold medal, second got silver, and third got bronze.  Standard stuff.  4th through 8th place got ribbons.  What I admired about these athletes was how down to earth they really were.  Of course they really wanted the gold, but you could still feel the same joy radiating out of the 7th place finisher and the gold medalist.  And man, could I feel that joy!  I remember they were awarding medals for gymnastics and a young girl ended up receiving the silver and she burst in tears.  At first sight I thought she cried because she narrowly missed the gold and I really felt for her.  But moments later I saw her kiss her medal like a newborn baby and I came to the realization that these were tears of joy and that this moment meant so much to her that she might not ever be able to explain it to anyone.  The athletes that would get on stage to receive medals were usually very supportive to one another, which is something you might not see at an Olympic event.  I recall multiple times when athletes would grab the hands of their fellow competitors and Reach Up (one of our sayings) in celebration, no matter the country of origin nor what place they finished in.  The emotion didn't end on the stage though.  I saw two parents of the young gymnast from Venezuela who won a bronze medal and as soon as they saw their daughter with that medal around their neck, jumping for joy, they both turned into Yosemite Falls, hugging each other.  They probably never pictured never seeing their daughter win a medal in a world competition, but there she was.  This was amazing.

Like I mentioned before, this being a World Games you had countries from all over the globe competing in sports and then socializing after.  It was great to see athletes from different countries interacting and competing and enjoying life.  Most didn't speak the same language, but the common tongue there was sports.  The currency there were these pins that athletes loved trading like people at Disneyland.  I got some myself, as well.  The athletes really did not care what country you came from, they were just happy you were there.  Even people who absolutely don't get along were able to get past their differences in honor of Special Olympics.  I'm of course talking about me and Clippers coach Doc Rivers.  As a Warriors fan I really don't like the Clippers.  And since Doc left coaching the Celtics for the Clippers back in 2013/ joined the evil empire, we haven't really been on speaking terms.  (Full disclosure: I didn't actually know Doc before this.)  But as I was working at a baseball game I saw a tall figure approach me who sort of looked like Doc Rivers.  So I asked him, "Umm.  Are you Doc Rivers?"  He smiled and said yes and shook my hand while thanking me for all the hard work and commitment I brought to the Special Olympics World Games.  He asked if he could take a picture with the Guaps...  OK.  That didn't happen like that.  But we did end up taking a picture together.  As he was on his way I wanted to throw a dig at him, because of course I wanted to.  I had a whole menu of juicy topics to throw at him.  There was the fact that the Clips choked up a 3-1 lead in the playoffs to the Houston Rockets. I could have said something about his son Austin Rivers AKA a Parody of Allen Iverson AKA the Charlie Chaplin of the NBA.  I could have brought up the DeAndre Jordan fiasco, you know, when DeAndre locked himself in his house with other Clippers to avoid Mark Cuban.  I even considered throwing a simple "Cool Story Glenn" a'la Draymond Green.  In the end I just told him to have a nice day.  If Special Olympics could do that, I'm not sure if there is even a limit now.

The Closing Ceremonies came and went.  They were basically one huge party with music performances that included Carly Rae Jepsen and someone else I didn't know.  Athletes from countries all over the world soaked in their last moments in Los Angeles by dancing and trading shirts and pins.  I was right there with them just trying to hold on to the week before it fled.  When it was over I sat in a chair and a bittersweet feeling came over me.  As I headed home I experience the same emotion I did when I graduated high school, nostalgia.  On the train ride home I met an Irish couple who had the chance to see their son win the gold in open water swimming.  The next day I went back to the office to turn my security card in and say my good-byes.  It's been over three weeks and I still miss interning at the World Games.  I put everything I had into Special Olympics.  What I got back was so much more.  This won't be the last time I'm involved with Special Olympics, I guarantee it.

The "R" Word
One of the things that was stressed to us at orientation when I started interning was the terminology to use.  The word "retarded" is a very offensive, hateful, not to mention, childish word.  That word really hurts and one of the missions of Special Olympics is to get people to stop using that word.  If you're an adult you shouldn't be using it anyway.  But if you see someone saying that word, whether they are a child or an adult, educate them and let them know why they shouldn't say it.  Now some of you smart Alec's might say, "Wait, but isn't "mentally retarded" a medical term?"  It was.  Emphasis on the was.  Instead we refer to a person with an intellectual disability exactly how I did just now.  We don't use medical terms that aren't in existence anymore.  We don't use Gay-related immune deficiency anymore when talking about AIDS.  So if you are talking about a person with an intellectual disability keep in mind the term you use.  And please, please do not call someone who is doing something dumb a "retard".  There are so many other things you can say that does not alienate people.  Check out to learn how you can Spread the Word to End the Word.