Most Inspirational Fandom: Special Olympics is leading an inclusion revolution


Special Olympics was included in FanSided’s Fandoms of the Year for 2022, selected as the Most Inspiring Fandom of the Year. Check out the rest of the list here

There was really only one athlete in my family, growing up — my older sister Jenny.

I played basketball and baseball, intermittently and badly, but I had no shortage of opportunities. I dabbled in soccer and swimming, tried fencing, golf and tennis, even ran cross-country for a season. My high school baseball team was so desperate for warm bodies that I was an every-game varsity starter as a sophomore, despite not recording a single hit all season long. Joining a youth league was as simple as signing up but even that level of structure didn’t wasn’t a necessity — there was always a pick-up game in some neighborhood driveway or local park to join. That is to say, I played because I could, because it was always right in front of me.

For Jenny, as a young woman with an intellectual disability growing up in the early 1980s, Special Olympics was the only option. She’s now participated in Special Olympics programs for more than 30 years — softball, swimming, basketball, floor hockey, track and field and more — with enough ribbons and medals to put my handful of participation trophies to shame.

We both loved sports but I never had to worry about opportunities to play. As long as I was interested, there was something there. If it wasn’t for Special Olympics, Jenny might never have had a chance to play any organized sports.

Special Olympics is about so much more than just an opportunity to play sports

This year, I had the opportunity to join more than 70 of my FanSided and Minute Media co-workers in Orlando, as we volunteered for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. This was a chance to build on the partnership our company has entered into with Special Olympics and see the power and scale of their work.

We helped greet athletes and families as they arrived at the facilities, hearing their stories of travel and years of preparation. We were able to speak to athlete advocates and hear about the value of wraparound programs like health screenings and other Healthy Athlete initiatives.

We had the privilege of watching the opening ceremonies, where more than 5,000 athletes from all 50 states and the Caribbean celebrated themselves and each other. And we had a chance to see, up and close and personal, what it meant to have a chance to not just play, but to compete.

After that experience in Orlando, I had a chance to appear on the Inclusion Revolution podcast with some of my co-workers and host Novie Craven, a Special Olympics athlete and an employee of Special Olympics International. Toward the end of the conversation, Novie asked each of us what inclusion meant to us and I had an opportunity to really bring together the experiences of my own family with my experiences as a volunteer and my role in helping tell stories of inclusion here at FanSided.

"“I spent a lot of time thinking about this question and how I wanted to answer it, and I think my answer was changed a lot by my experiences in Orlando. At a basic level, inclusion is an opportunity to participate. In terms of Special Olympics, it’s an opportunity to be a part of these programs and play sports and participate. But I think inclusion is about so much more than just participation, it’s access to not just the opportunity to play but the full range of outcomes.”“In the Special Olympics context, it’s not just the opportunity to play sports, it’s the opportunity to have the full range of experiences that sports provide. It’s the opportunity to be challenged at your level, and to overcome challenges. It’s the opportunity to be on a team, to build relationships, to build friendships. To be coached, to take feedback, to set goals and improve and overcome obstacles. It’s the opportunity to not just be on a team but figure out your special gift, what is it that you as an individual can provide and bring to a team.”“It’s not just that you get to play softball or you get to swim, it’s that you get to be an athlete and everything that means.”"

Partnering with Special Olympics to help tell their stories and promote their mission of inclusion is an honor and has helped me understand more deeply what being an athlete has meant to my sister. It’s a movement that everyone can learn from and everyone can be a part of.

Everyone getting the opportunity to be the best version of themselves — how could you not be a fan of that?

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