Leading From the Heart: 2018 Special Olympics USA Games | #TeamWalmart #ChooseToInclude

“You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory. The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it. The right to study in any school? You have earned it. The right to hold a job? You have earned it. The right to anyone’s neighbor? You have earned it.”

                                 –   Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics World Games,                                                                              South Bend, Indiana (1987)

 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, image courtesy of Special Olympics Georgia

 

When my friends at Walmart invited me to attend the Special Olympics 2018 USA Games as their social media influencer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Of course, having spina bifida, I have grown up in the disability community, so I am familiar with many advocacy circles.

But this was different. This was the first time a brand invited me in my capacity as a blogger to represent them in covering an event that caters to the disability community.

If you know me, then you probably know I do not consider myself an athletic person, despite having competed in “adaptive” sports in middle school. Not being familiar with the Special Olympics culture, I didn’t realize how big this event was going to be, either. I knew I was just honored and humbled to be invited, and I was also excited the games would be held in Seattle, a city I’ve dreamed of visiting for years!

 

Pics or it didn’t happen, right? You can’t visit Seattle without photographing the iconic Space Needle!

 

 

The experience was even more meaningful, as Special Olympics is celebrating 50 years of games and a commitment to inclusion that is stronger than ever, as seen through their #InclusionRevolution campaign.  

I could barely hold back the tears when I arrived at Sea-Tac Airport and saw all of the signage warmly welcoming Special Olympics athletes to the city! Despite Seattle being so big with so much going on, you could spot Special Olympics banners or promotion everywhere. The entire town seemed consumed by the games, and it looked like everyone there was thrilled to be a part of this event.

My arrival at the Sheraton Seattle was even more impressive, as I was staying in the official hotel for the Special Olympics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Walmart?

As it happened, Walmart had 15 of their Associates competing in different sports in the games. This was their first year as Sponsor of the Special Olympics USA Games!

During my stay in Seattle, I got to witness Texas Walmart associate and athlete Jordan Carter compete in the 400-meter relay…for which he won the Bronze medal!

 

Jordan Carter, front, races in the 400-meter relay for the Bronze! 

 

 

 

 

I had the opportunity to “track” down and chat with Jordan Carter after his relay race! Congratulations, Jordan! 

 

Meeting Jordan Carter at the track after his big relay race!

 

 

While I did not get to meet Special Olympics relay athlete and North Dakota Walmart Associate Heather Martell on the track, I got to watch her shine in her sport!

 

North Dakota Walmart Associate and Special Olympics athlete Heather Martell smiles broadly on the track. 

 


I also got to interview Shayne Curtiss of Connecticut, who won the Gold Medal for Bowling!

 

 

                       

With Shayne Curtiss and his coach, Lisa Thomasco. 

 

 

 

Indeed, having grown up and attended school in a culture that constantly told me “you can’t,” it was beyond moving and life-affirming to be surrounded by parents, coaches, sponsors, and fans who support these elite athletes in their respective journeys.

I definitely felt very fortunate that Walmart was allowing me to be a part of that.

 

(Check out below the dynamic squad of cheerleaders who came from Texas to show their support for Special Olympics athletes!) 

 

During the Opening Ceremony at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, I was able to meet and mingle with athletes, as well as my friends from Walmart, and enjoyed an amazing breakfast in the comfort of a large lounge.

 

 

 

Then, I watched the ceremony. I could never have expected the giant lump that formed in my throat during the National Anthem, or when the athletes processed out onto the field, one by one, from every state in the country. I couldn’t have anticipated what a mess I’d become when watching videos of the athletes speaking about the importance of being included.

 

Husky Stadium filled with different colors as teams from each state in the country processed out onto the field. 

 

I dare anyone to tell me their eyes were dry when Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver came out onstage, hand in hand with Frannie, the youngest athlete to participate in this year’s games!

 

 

 

 

 

But most of all, I couldn’t have anticipated meeting Special Olympics Chairman Dr. Timothy Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the games in 1968. The Special Olympics USA Games are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

 

 

When the ladies of the Walmart team and I noticed Dr. Shriver was in the lounge where we were having breakfast, I totally geeked out. With some encouragement from my girls, I got up the courage to approach him, despite him being constantly surrounded by people chatting with him. Let me tell you, he is one of the most personable and genuine people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting! I couldn’t believe how accessible and down-to-earth this nephew of JFK is!

 

 

When I told him I have spina bifida and explained about my advocacy work with The Laurita Spina Bifida Project, he seemed very excited. I couldn’t believe I had my photo opp with him that early on. Then, a few hours later during the Opening Ceremony, I had the opportunity to interview him! I will let the conversation speak for itself, but suffice it to say it was one of the most inspiring, enlightening, and rewarding interviews I’ve conducted in my career.

 

 

 

 

While I didn’t get to meet her, I was thrilled to be able to watch the behind-the-scenes video produced by the Walmart team of Catoosa, Oklahoma Associate Liz Hubert, who took home the gold medal this year for powerlifting! She is bright, determined, and a very hard-working athlete who put it all out there and makes the Walmart community proud, as well as her hometown!

 

 

Indeed, for me, one of the most meaningful aspects of covering the Special Olympics 2018 USA Games in Seattle was spending time with “my girls,” Emily and Rosalynn “Roz” who I met in Bentonville when I visited the Walmart Home Office, and Debbie, Amber, and Denise who I met in Seattle. They all truly made me feel that I am “part of the family,” and did everything in their power to ensure my stay in Seattle was the best, and that I had every opportunity to talk with athletes and Special Olympics organization officials!

 

Rosalynn “Roz,” me, and Emily. Should we name ourselves at this point? I feel like we need a name! 

 

One more VIP I got to interview is Chad Jones, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for Special Olympics. You know when you meet someone and start talking with them and just “click” as if you’ve known each other for years? That was Chad and me! What a beautiful soul and a remarkable human being.

 

 

 

 

Another highlight of the events for me was attending the “Future of Inclusion” panel, which featured Brad Smith, President of Microsoft (another very key sponsor of the games), comedian Tig Notaro, actress Lauren Potter of “Glee” (GLEEKS! I totally gleeked out), and my new friend Dr. Tim Shriver.

 

 

Each panelist spoke about their personal connection to the disability community and the importance of inclusion in our society. However, no one moved me more than Lauren Potter, who spoke of the teasing and bullying she suffered, all because she has Down Syndrome. After the panel, when the floor was open for questions, I took the opportunity to address her directly and let her know her experiences were quite similar to mine as a child growing up with spina bifida. I wanted to remind her that she is not alone. Thank you, Lauren, for sharing your story with us!

While it’s been a while already since we returned from Seattle, I am still unpacking the myriad memories I made there. To get to experience such an inclusive, warm, and inviting event, where competitors not only congratulate each other, but actually hug each other and genuinely seem to have each others’ backs, is not something I am used to seeing in the highly-competitive, “I must be #1” culture we live in. Why can’t this be the norm for all of us, all of the time? We don’t treat each other like that for the most part!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is beyond refreshing that, at Special Olympics, the motto actually is as Eunice Kennedy Shriver stated it at the inaugural Chicago games in 1968:

 

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

 

 

Thank you to Walmart, to the passionate Special Olympics team comprised of 3,000 athletes, 1,000 coaches, and 15,000 volunteers, and to all of the athletes for allowing me to bear witness to your bravery.

 

Thanks to the fabulous volunteers who poured their hearts into this event and into making each attendee feel so welcome!  I felt right at home in Seattle thanks to you. 

 

“Show the world what it looks like to lead from the heart. Because the world is looking. The world is looking for leaders who value compassion, who value dignity and respect, who value unity, and you, my fellow athletes and friends of Special Olympics, you are the ones the world is looking for. You are the leaders the world needs at this critical moment. So show America what it means to shower respect on your fellow human beings. Show the world what it means to choose to include. Show others, where they see tension and fear, show them togetherness. And when others see division, I’m asking you, show them love. Because we are living in a country that needs you right now, and we’re here to take a stand for a different kind of America.”

Dr. Tim Shriver, Opening Ceremony, 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, Seattle