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A Man Named Tim: A Special Olympic Experience

09/27/2010 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Several years ago I was invited to a charitable conference called the Glocal Forum. The Forum was a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of international intercity relations in pursuit of a new balance between global and local forces. At the conference I met a man who was approachable, genuine, handsome, charismatic, giving, down-to-earth, intelligent, and witty. He had introduced himself solely as "Tim", so I had no idea the weight his full name carried. I just new I really liked his character and felt that I would buy ice from him in Antarctica if he said it was for a good cause. I soon found out why I thought so highly of this man named "Tim"....

Timothy Shriver
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(Story from When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out)

Some of the greatest moments in sports are those defined by the supreme effort put forth by competitors who take every personal risk imaginable to advance the cause, who empty themselves of all energy and capacity, and then somehow find a reservoir of will that propels them beyond fatigue, pain, fear or exhaustion to achieve more than anyone ever thought possible.

Vince Lombardi captured the popular notion of this type of effort--of what it means to "leave everything on the field"--when he said, "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle--victorious."

The best known examples of this type of effort are held out as nearly superhuman feats. Michael Jordan, drained and dehydrated with severe flu, carrying his team to victory in a crucial game five of the '97 NBA Finals. Kerri Strug, unable to walk due to torn tendons in her ankle, sealing gold for Team U.S.A. in gymnastics with an unforgettably daring vault and landing at the Atlanta Olympics. Tiger Woods, playing with a bum knee and a broken leg, willing his way to win a sudden death playoff to take the 2008 U.S. Open.

Though not as well known as these feats, at Special Olympics, where athletes with intellectual disabilities compete for respect and acceptance off the field as much as victory on it, these types of heroic, risky, all-out-effort performances happen as well.

Think of Alexi Rogov, a Russian speed skater who competed in the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games. He was halfway through his race when he caught an edge and hit the ice, landing so hard and so awkwardly that he sliced through his Achilles tendon. Despite excruciating pain, he got up, and found within himself the will to continue the race and finish. Later, from his bed after surgery, Alexi said that stopping was not an option. "I didn't want to let my teammates down," he told me matter-of-factly.

What is it that propels this type of effort? What enables these athletes to summon this type of bravery--to give the performance of a lifetime when they seemingly have nothing left in the tank to give? What pushes them to say, "It's worth the risk"?

There is a range of characteristics that fuel such accomplishments, but the common denominator, I think, is desire. The desire to go out on the field despite realizing that the odds are against you. Knowing that you are in some way broken, vulnerable, less able than your competition, but nonetheless relentlessly willing to try. It is a desire that fuels the body in pain or the heart depleted that is unafraid of losing and unwilling to live with not having tried. It is the desire that comes from not caring how you look as you hobble along, struggling to complete a race on one skate, but caring deeply about how you'd feel if you didn't finish.

Over the years I've learned that some of these awe-inspiring performances come from the most unlikely competitors. And the most incredible one I ever witnessed, one that outdid Jordan and Tiger and all of them, came from a Special Olympics athlete in a wheelchair. His physical challenges were significant: he couldn't communicate verbally, couldn't feed himself, couldn't perform even basic manual tasks without Herculean effort. And yet he gave a performance that would have made even Lombardi redefine what it meant to be victorious.

The setting was the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland. At these games, Special Olympics globally unveiled the Motor Activities Training Program (MATP), designed for people with significant limitations who don't yet possess the physical skills necessary to participate in traditional Olympic-type sports.

Examples of MATP activities include the beanbag lift, the ball kick and the log roll. As you might expect, the focus is less on competition and more on training, progress and participation. MATP is designed to give individuals with substantial challenges the opportunity to participate in Special Olympics, while reminding whole communities that no limitation is too great to suppress the desire of the human spirit.

Nonetheless, one might not expect MATP to be a compelling spectator sport. But how wrong! While the activities undertaken are, by themselves, fairly unremarkable, the displays of courage, grit, determination are anything but.

As chairman of Special Olympics, I confess that I was nervous about how the public would respond to an event showcasing the abilities of MATP athletes. However, at those World Games in Ireland, the public caught on quickly to the idea that there was something happening at the MATP venue that was worth seeing. Word spread and lines to get into the venue steadily increased. By the end of the second day there was a two hour wait to get inside. But by the time I went, on the third day of the games, the place was packed to the rafters with over fifteen hundred spectators, while hundreds more waited to get in.

In the crowd that day was President of Ireland Mary McAleese, and as she took her seat, out came the first participant, Irish himself, using a wheelchair and clearly of extremely limited mobility. His activity was the beanbag lift, where the goal is to move a bag across a tray attached to his motorized wheelchair. Grasp the beanbag, lift it, move it from one side to the other.

The crowd hushed as his name was announced and he was readied by his coach so that his hand was positioned on the tray within reaching distance of the beanbag. The coach whispered a word of encouragement in his ear, and then stepped aside as the clock started to time his performance.

The first minute passed in silence as he tried to get his fingers to grasp the beanbag. Fifteen hundred people emotionally pulled for this young mean as he struggled to accomplish something most of us take for granted thousands of times every day as we reach for a cup of coffee, or the phone, or a pen.

Halfway through the second minute, the silence was broken by a spectator who yelled out, like the golf fan who can't contain his excitement after a putt, "Come on now!" Other people began to murmur with encouragement.

By the third minute, he still hadn't managed it, but the crowd picked up its volume with every inch of progress made by his uncooperative fingers. And when he finally grasped the beanbag, after three full minutes of concentration and effort, the auditorium erupted.

For the next fifteen minutes, while he labored to move the object from one side of the tray to the other, the crowd didn't let up. As the spectators willed him on, he willed on his body, until finally, after eighteen minutes had expired on the clock, he had completed the exercise. As he dropped the beanbag on its target, the noise from the crowd was deafening, and the look on his face was one of total exhaustion, total exhilaration.

Never before had I seen a person risk more, expend more, or leave more of himself on the court than this young man that morning. The courage and confidence he displayed in showing up in front of a crowd that included the president of his country, to perform a task that any one of those watching could have done in three seconds, was hard to fathom.

He didn't know how the crowd would react. They could have pitied him, cringed at the time it took for him to complete his activity, felt embarrassed for him. But despite all the risks, he wanted his chance, he was ready to compete, he had a desire that could not be stopped.

All he could do was give it everything he had, and as a result, there was no pity, no averted eyes, no embarrassment. On the contrary, he had his moment and he claimed it. No one could doubt that he or she had been in the presence of a champion. We were inspired by him, uplifted by the fact that he possessed the courage and desire to risk everything to accomplish what he set out to do.

There is a saying that sports don't build character, they reveal it. For Special Olympics, the revelation can often be as much about the spectator as it is about the athlete. In this case, my experience that day in Ireland revealed something within me that I was often reluctant to admit, which was that even after a lifetime of involvement in Special Olympics, there was a part of me that was always apprehensive in telling the story of our movement. What would others think? Would they be silently dismissive of our athletes and our work? Would they judge us as (at worst) irrelevant or (at best) nice but unimportant? There was something in me that was always fearful of other people's opinions.

But in the eighteen minutes it took that athlete to complete his activity, I was changed. I arrived that day anxious and apprehensive about what others would think, but I left after that heroic performance worried no more. The power in the room wasn't in the shouts of the crowd; it wasn't in the long lines outside the venue; it wasn't even in the presence of the president of the country. It was in the athlete himself. He didn't worry. He wasn't deterred by a lifetime's worth of struggle. He didn't stay home because of fear of being judged.

He was brave, willing, real. He went within, found his strength, felt no limits, embraced all risk.

I try to take his energy to my family, to my colleagues, to those I meet. Sometimes I still wonder whether others are judging me and my message. But when I feel that, I remind myself of that performance in Ireland. I know if this courageous Irishman can stick his neck out to life's greatest risks, then I certainly can as well. It may take eighteen minutes or eighteen days or eighteen years--but somehow, I know the strength of the human spirit will win.

Motivational Weight Management Tip

My experience of working with the Biggest Loser contestants and Symtrimics has inspired me to leave motivational diet, health, and wellness tips at the end of all of my blogs. These tools will be driven from the actual advice shared in my weekly motivational Transformation Talks. This week's tip: When you hit a bad patch on your road to better health, don't harp on it or feel you've completely failed. Look at all the things you DID do well that day or week and then take stock of what you can improve. You'll see that there is still a lot you have accomplished and your setback can be good lessons for the future.