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Thump. Thump. Thump. It started with a toddler, still in diapers, kicking a toy soccer ball around the kitchen. Adopted from a Lithuanian orphanage at 16 months and trying to adjust to his new home in America, Romas Gabbrielli had found his joy in a bouncing toy almost half his width. This joy only grew with time, Romas becoming a shining star (MVP and Sportsman of the Year) on the soccer field as he grew older.
Then came the bullying. His teammates didn’t understand him and Romas, diagnosed with autism, felt demoralized and withdrawn. Special Olympics changed that and brought the joy back into soccer.
“A lot of athletes feel like they’re outsiders, both in school and when it comes to sports because in some instances, they weren’t even able to try out to join a team,” said Megan O’Donnell, Vice President of Communications for Special Olympics North Carolina. “Special Olympics builds their confidence and their self-esteem grows.”
This June, more than 1,700 athletes will compete in sports like aquatics, cycling and softball in the 2016 Special Olympics NC Summer Games in Cary and Raleigh. Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties has a Special Olympics program, bringing the state’s athlete count to nearly 40,000. These athletes participate in seasonal sports all year, from basketball in the fall to snowboarding and speed skating in the winter.
But Special Olympics is about more than just sports. From global messengers to leadership councils, the program offers athletes the chance to shine both on and off the field of play.
“It has given me a sense of pride, a sense of belonging and a sense of family,” said Jennifer Wardlow, an athlete with Special Olympics NC for more than 25 years who was also able to sit next to George W. Bush during Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s 85th birthday party at the White House. “Your peers have a disability just like you, and it has given me a voice for those who haven’t found their voice yet. We are individuals with intellectual disabilities. We have the ability to be on your board, to be in your movies, on your sports development teams and to make decisions not only for the organization, but for ourselves.”
Wardlow, who described Special Olympics NC as her rainbow during a rainy season, discovered her love of track in elementary school. It wasn’t until later in life, however, when she joined in on a basketball practice, that she became an athlete with Special Olympics NC. Since then she’s competed in track, basketball, bowling, soccer, softball and more.
“Once I found it, it was like a lightbulb went off,” Wardlow said. “When you’re in special education classes, it’s like you don’t fit in, you don’t belong, and you’re different. I said this is my place, and this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Wardlow encourages others to give back to the next generation of torch bearers. As the first female Special Olympics athlete in the world to serve as a coach at a Special Olympics World Games competition, Wardlow challenged herself by learning a new set of skills. As a coach, she had to not only deal with personalities, but athletes who are afraid and did not know how to express themselves. She also had to teach herself how to adapt and put on a strong face for her team. Wardlow points out that although she was the first, she hopes she’s not the last and encourages others to become coaches to show them how to overcome fear and doubt in life.
“When I’m not playing a sport, I’m encouraging somebody else to do their best,” Wardlow said. “If there were a book about my life, it would be called ‘A Force to be Reckoned With.’”
For the Summer Games schedule visit sonc.net/sports-competitions/summer-games/
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