Athens: Summer, 2011.
History may remember it as a place and time of turmoil and civil unrest in Greece: a time when the looming threat of economic collapse sparked a nationwide panic in the once-glorious cradle of democracy, and rioters took to the streets in angry protest against their failed government.
But for millions of people around the world, Athens in the summer of 2011 will always conjure a different set of memories and meanings. For them, it was about hope; it was about inspiration; it was about triumph.
In short: it was about the Special Olympics World Games.
Since their inception in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard in 1968, the Special Olympics World Games have become a symbol of hope and compassion for the world, an example of how startlingly beautiful—and surprisingly courageous—humanity can be.
The world’s premier competition for intellectually challenged athletes, the Games often become the biggest sporting event in the world in a given year, with thousands of athletes, fans, supporters, family, friends, celebrities and luminaries turning out for the event; and that is exactly what happened this year.
This year’s Summer Games—the thirteenth in the series—featured a small army of U.S. athletes: 450 players in a wide variety of sports, including aquatics, bowling, cycling, equestrian, soccer, softball, tennis, athletics, basketball, bocce, golf, gymnastics, kayaking, powerlifting, sailing, and not one, but two volleyball teams: one from Alabama and one from Texas. (In this article, we follow the team from Dothan, Alabama, Team USA Red.)
So many U.S. athletes, coaches, and supporters participated in the Games this year that two fully-packed 747 airplanes were required to transport them all to the island of Rhodes in the Greek archipelago. On that beautiful island (where, according to legend, the fabled Colossus once stood), Team USA Red spent three days “decompressing,” getting over their jet-lag and warming up with practice games, in preparation for the main event in Athens.
It was on Rhodes that the athletes first began meeting players from other countries—and the practice of “pin trading” began. Each player was given an allotment of pins representing their country, and they traded these pins with players from other countries, thereby making friends. Pin trading was listed by many U.S. players as one of the highlights of the Games.
“I have enjoyed pin trading the most,” said Will Gill. “I have a big bag full of pins and key chains from other countries. I will look at these every day and remember the friends I made. It has been the time of my life.”
This emphasis on friendship is one of the most touching aspects of the Games: one gets the feeling these athletes care as much about making friends as they do about winning—and in this sense, the Games become a symbol of international goodwill and harmony.
“I watch them as they communicate with each other,” said Barbie Nelson, Assistant Coach of Team USA Red. “Though they don’t speak the same language, they seem to understand each other. I see them playing X-box, dancing to each other’s music, and just coming together as the unity that Special Olympics is all about.”
Make no mistake about it, though: these athletes didn’t go to Greece just to make new friends.
“They wanted to win from day one,” Nelson said. “Even though there were days when they were tired, when they hit that court, they knew they were serious. You could see it in their faces. They had a game face on. I never really thought much about that term, until I saw them on the floor.”
Scott Buss, Volleyball sports manager for Special Olympics International, agrees that these athletes are every bit as serious about their sport as any professional.
“Once the whistle blows, these athletes want to win the match as intensely as anyone that has ever played,” he said.
For Team USA Red, that will to win would pay big dividends in Athens. On the third day after their arrival in Rhodes, the Americans embarked on a grueling 18-hour ferry voyage to the Greek capital. After disembarking on the mainland, they made their way to the Golden Coast Hotel in Athens, catching glimpses of the fabled Parthenon and Acropolis along the way, passing through the pages of history in the land where the first Olympics occurred some 2,800 years ago.
Though the hotel was a good hour and a half from the center of the city, there were moments when, from their hotel balconies, the U.S. delegation could hear the distant clamor of the Athenian riots, and plumes of smoke could be seen rising on the horizon, according to Kim Richards of Texas, who covered the Games as a photographer.
But for the most part, the riots were barely noticeable to the players and they only saw a handful of demonstrators, Nelson said.
“We were never put even close to that,” she said, adding: “Everywhere we went, even at the hotel, security was tight.”
Buss agreed: “The civil unrest was really localized around the government buildings downtown in Athens. All of the sports venues and lodgings for athletes were outside the city, and if you weren’t watching CNN or the BBC you’d never know there were any demonstrations at all. The athletes only experienced the great hospitality of the Greek people.”
With security handled, the Games were afoot—and right from the opening serve Team USA Red took the lead, defeating home-favorite Greece by a large margin (25-10, 25-12), and then going on to rack up further victories against Austria (25-8, 25-18), Japan (25-11, 25-10), and Greece again (25-21, 25-15).
With this string of wins, the Americans surged out of the preliminary rounds as the No. 1 contender, and moved forward into the crucial final stage of the event: the Medal Rounds, where the top four teams would do battle for top honors.
Here the Americans suffered their first setback. Having defeated the tough Turkish team 25-19 in the first game of the match, they faltered in the second, losing a close rematch 23-25. Going into the tiebreaker, Team USA Red got a pep-talk from coaches Angie Lowe, Elston Jones, and Barbara Nelson. And when they took the court again, they showed the Turks what volleyball was all about, claiming the match with a stunning 15-4 rout.
Spurred by this success, the Americans went on to overwhelm the Japanese team (25-4, 25-22), clinching the silver medal, and coming within an ace of the coveted gold. But before the final match, Team USA Red got to have some fun with Unity Sports.
Unity Sports is a series of non-official Special Olympics activities in which Special Olympics athletes have an opportunity to play alongside internationally renowned sports stars, entertainment personalities and others. Past celebrity participants have included Robin Williams, Nadia Comanici, Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton, Vanessa Williams and Maria Shriver.
This year, two of Team USA Red’s players—Robbie Wilson and Andrew Neve—got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with such volleyball legends as Tom Hoff, Adriana Behar, Vanja Grbic, Marios Giourdas, and Vasso Karadassiou.
For Hoff, Unity Sports has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his career. “My biggest regret is that I didn’t do this ten years ago, twenty years ago, when I first started getting into volleyball,” said the Olympic gold medalist. “But I plan on being a part of it for many, many more World Games to come.”
Following the Unity Sports interlude, Team USA Red was fired up to bring their A-game against a vengeful Turkey in the final gold medal showdown. For nine years the two-time national champion Alabama warriors had trained for this moment, and they were up to the challenge. Bringing their most inspired and powerful performance yet, Team USA Red swept over the Turks like a red-white-and-blue storm, notching their final match victory in the form of a 25-13, 25-5 smackdown. The United States, having won all their matches, had claimed the gold medal.
The following day was July 4th—a day of celebration for America, fittingly enough, as if destiny, having foreseen the outcome, had bestowed this poignant gift of timing upon Team USA Red like a victory wreath, to crown the triumph. And the proud athletes stood on the podium at the closing ceremony as some 50,000 fans, supporters, celebrities, family, friends, and fellow competitors from 143 countries cheered their historic victory.
“How can you top a moment like that?” said Nelson. “What an amazing moment!”
And as if Division I Team USA Red’s victory weren’t enough, Team USA Blue (Texas, Division II) also took home the gold medal—marking America as the greatest Special Olympics volleyball power in the world, twice over.
Back in “Sweet Home Alabama,” Team Red was given a hero’s welcome: police cars and fire engines lined the streets for blocks; hundreds of cheering Dothanites proudly waved flags and banners; a live band performed a specially composed victory song; and the governor of Alabama himself delivered a rousing congratulatory speech. These courageous, determined athletes—some of whom, like Greg Guilford below, had been told all their lives that they couldn’t do it—were now national heroes.
The Special Olympics Athlete Oath, recited before every game, goes like this: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” In their lives, these athletes have bravely faced much greater odds than many other competitors will ever face; and with their victory in Athens this year, they have won much more than gold medals.
Special thanks to Barbie Nelson and Scott Buss for their assistance with this article.
The Special Olympics is more than just the world’s premier athletic organization for intellectually challenged athletes and a global humanitarian cause. It’s also the largest public health organization in the world dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.
In the late 1990s, after listening to athletes at Special Olympics events the world over and compiling years of research, it became clear to the Special Olympics leadership that a serious deficiency existed in healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities. It turned out that these people often received either substandard healthcare, or none at all.
“Some of these kids had never had a dental checkup or eye exam in their entire life,” said Scott Buss. “It was unbelievable.”
So in 1997, Special Olympics launched an initiative called Healthy Athletes, where athletes can get free basic medical care at Special Olympics events. (At the Athens Games, the Healthy Athletes screenings took place on June 30, in between Team USA Red’s victories over Greece and Turkey.) Since its 1997 launch, Healthy Athletes has given over one million free health screenings; trained more than 90,000 healthcare professionals in the health concerns of people with intellectual disabilities; and given out more than 70,000 pairs of prescription eyeglasses.
Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy blinded by cataracts, emerged from his Healthy Athletes screening with restored sight. “I can see trees, I can see houses, I can see the sun,” he cried. Clasping his father’s hand, he gazed up at him and said: “Hey, Dad: I didn’t know you were that tall!”
Player Profile: Greg Guilford
Born with cerebral palsy that afflicts the entire left side of his body, Special Olympian Greg Guilford has never let this handicap stop him in life: he has always taken challenges head-on, and turned them into opportunities. As a boy growing up in Dothan, Alabama, he loved sports—especially basketball, baseball and volleyball. But as he grew, he found that people didn’t want to include him in their games, thinking his handicap would hinder the team. Despite the fact that Guilford often proved himself better than other players, he still could never find a team to belong to.
It was Special Olympics that gave Guilford his chance. When he first found out about the organization, he was so excited he jumped on his bike and rode all the way across town to find out if it was true. He was so happy, he went home and told all his friends about it, and they joined as well. Ten years later, Guilford is a Special Olympics gold medalist and a national hero. When others told Greg “no you can’t,” he said, “Oh, yes I can.” Guilford never gave up on his dreams, and in the end, thanks to Special Olympics, they came true.
Every once in awhile, Greg thinks back to his childhood, when everyone told him he couldn’t do it.
“I sure would like to see their faces today,” Greg said. “Watching me play in the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece!”
Originally published in September/October 2011