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A Week with Very Special Athletes
During the third week of November, I have been working as a volunteer photographer for the World Tennis Invitational of Special Olympics, held in Santo Domingo. This event introduced me to a new world as it was created by an organization for… very special athletes.
People with intellectual disabilities are quite disregarded in the society. How much do we learn about them at school? Often, nothing at all. Special Olympics was created to give them the opportunity to enrich their life through sports. This year, 50th anniversary of the organization’s creation, 30 countries have answered the call and presented their delegation to the competition exclusively related to tennis held in the Dominican Republic.
The complex where the World Invitational was developed became a hive of colors and people coming from four different continents: there were Chileans, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Hungarians, Spanishs, Germans…
As I walked around -- with my camera in hand, ready to capture shots of emotional moments -- the spontaneous smiles and welcoming personality of the special athletes and their teams surprised me. They hugged me a lot. A girl with Down syndrome offered me a pin she had earned in a previous manifestation, while another boy gifted me a bracelet with the colors of his country so I “could have a souvenir of them”.
Before playing, some athletes asked me if I could cheer for them. A 47 years old man with Williams syndrome insisted on thanking me for taking a picture of him, and he presented me to his team. The Brazilians, of whom I took a group photography, asked for my name. Used to people forgetting it, as it is not usual where I live, I was very surprised when one of them pronounced it correctly as we crossed paths one day later.
During a match, I could not bring myself to stable my camera properly: one of the players, knowing what effect it would cause, effectuated some awkward dancing before each point, which sent his opponent, the referees, the coaches, me, and himself into long waves of giggles. He lives with one of the strongest forms of Down syndrome, which means that he cannot talk and is barely responsive. Still, he knows how to make others laugh.
I got the chance to talk to many of the special athletes -- because, contrary to a popular belief, some people with intellectual disabilities are very good chatters -- and to understand how they enjoy life through the sports they practice. Kenny, from Ecuador, had a lot to say about the trips he has previously made: he went to Greece, Brazil, and Panama to play, but his favorite country was by far China, where “there were a lot of people” and “the medals were nice, very heavy”.
Mphatso, from Malawi, told me how happy she was when she played. She said it is “a way to demonstrate her country that she can represent them”; she is very proud of it. Her coach, Enid, is the national director of Special Olympics in Malawi, where there are more than twenty-two thousand special athletes enrolled in the organization.
The World Tennis Invitational was divided in categories, and one that I particularly liked was the unified one. In the unified category, each special athlete teamed up with a non-special athlete -- or unified player -- to play doubles. It was amazing to witness the care and dedication, as well as the team spirit and amusement, that pairs shared.
Abdul, a unified player from Egypt, told me that Special Olympics is very big in his country, perhaps the greatest organization present there. He has known Ibrahim, his special teammate that lives with a Down syndrome, for around a year now, and considers him as his brother. They were not afraid to travel for more than 15 hours to get to the event! When Ibrahim steps on the court, he becomes a real lion, encouraging himself like a true champion, and is always backed up by his amazing mother, that did not lose a minute of his matches.
The Egyptian special player is graduate in mass communication, and knows how to speak English -- collapsing another popular belief: people with intellectual diseases are not incapable of learning, they are just slower. Steven, from Costa Rica, lives with dyslexia, but he still is finishing his studies in telecommunication.
When I met Steve, Christophe, and Jodi, the players from Monaco, I learned that not only do they play tennis, but they are also skilled in football, table tennis, swimming, and more sports, while I do not even manage to kick a ball correctly. Christophe, who is over 50 years old, explained me that when he is about to play he is “very nervous, very anxious,” but that he manages to calm himself down “because this is competition, but also only a game.”
As one of the hundreds of volunteers enrolled to collaborate to the event’s development, I could easily hear what my teammates had to say about the World Invitational. Those who worked in the press station with me wished that the week would never end: they enjoyed making interviews as much as interacting with the special players. It was an occasion for them to collect experience “without even noticing it, because we’re having so much fun”, said Nicole, a journalism student.
One of my friends, who was part of the local delegation as a unified player, took care of the players with a dedication I had never seen in him for anything else. “I love to spend time with them. They make me feel happy.”
In only a few days, I grew attached to the players, their team, their fondness, and their good humor and will to live, to the point of crying when the event was over.
When I signed up for this experience, some months ago, I had not the slightest idea of what it would mean to spend some time with people coming from all over the world that have syndromes such as Down or Prader-Willi, but the time I shared with them turned out to be some of the best I have ever had.
When I asked the director of the local delegation how long she has been working with special players, her answer was simple, “It’s been twenty years. When you start taking care of them, you can’t stop.”