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One Family's Journey and Joy: The 2014 Special Olympics Makes More Than One Kind of Impact

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A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon something wonderful happening in Central New Jersey: it was the 2014 Special Olympics. Of course, I've heard of the games, but I've never watched them. As someone with a great interest in children's education and success, I was curious about the event. I wondered if it was just a copycat event to the Olympics--designed to include teenagers with intellectual disabilities? Was it more than a brand?

Courage. Confidence. Determination.

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Casey competing in June 2014

Those are a few of the adjectives the Special Olympics encourages in participants. It uniquely joins athletes in what is so much more than a sports program--but seems to me to be a real movement to advocate for the rights of its members.

JFK's sister, Eunice, started this organization out of her home in Potomac, New York, in an effort to create a safe, education and playful environment for kids with intellectual disabilities. Later, with the movements other founders, Shriver helped transform the day camp into a national movement, campaigning for physical, inclusive activities for youth. Later, Shriver revealed that the eldest Kennedy sister had been subjected to a lobotomy to "cure" her own disability; and Eunice partially credited this relationship with encouraging her to found what would become the Special Olympics movement.

When I attended the Special Olympics in June, held this year near Princeton in New Jersey, I met a beautiful family there in support of their 24-year old son, Casey. This year he was a first-time competitor, in Track and Field, in the 200, 400, and 100 meter races, as well at the 400 meter relay race. Casey is hearing impaired and lives in Mufreesboro, Tennessee. There he is involved in Learn.org, the very organization that connected him with Special Olympics. There, he also plays flag football and competes on the Unified Basketball Team. His mother, Lisa, sat down with me to talk about how important this organization is to her family and so many others.

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The Martin Family at the Special Olympics

Steve Mariotti: Tell me about the Special Olympics.
Lisa Martin:
Special Olympics is an organization that enables people like Casey to participate in organized sports, and to compete against others with special needs of their own. When Casey was in high school, he ran Track and Field, and lettered in Cross Country. But after graduation, we found that most other sports programs were not accessible for a young man like Casey.

In Special Olympics, Casey gets to participate seriously and have fun doing it. Because of that, it has become a big part of our family's life. Casey loves sports. But more than that, as everyone sees when competing against him, he is very competitive. Special Olympics caters to his love for athletics and competitive spirit, but also allows him the chance to use teamwork, like in the relay race.

SM: What kinds of skills has Casey learned through the Special Olympics?
LM:
Casey loves to compete, and he loves to win. The Special Olympics has taught Casey the value in persevering in a race, whether he wins or loses. It has encouraged him to go out, and do his best, even when he came in last place the day before. The Special Olympics has helped Casey with his determination, and I think that's what will always motivate him to do the best he can in life. He knows to keep his head up, and to move on--after all, he might get a medal around his neck the next time.

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Casey has a strong work ethic both on and off the field. To prepare for these games, he ran five to ten miles every day, did sprints, and biked. Casey followed this regimen on his own--no one told him to go out and do that. He was determined to be in his best shape for the games.

The Special Olympics has really helped Casey grow as a young man and as a citizen, more than just as an athlete. He is a rule follower, and tries to do what is fair for others. Whenever he has the chance, he extolls the values of the Special Olympics, and everything the games have done for his life. He invites others to join him, to practice sports with him, and to experience some of that joy.

We are both always telling everyone that will listen just how wonderful the games are!

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Casey receiving one of his medals.

SM: What other events is Casey involved in?
LM:
Casey is very involved in our local church, as well as a Youth Group there. I think the volunteer encouragement in the Special Olympics taught Casey how important it is to step up and help out--so on his own, he goes to church every Sunday night to set up for the Youth Night. He has been on volunteer trips to Haiti and Mexico, where he helped to build churches. While he was there, he fell in love with the children and shared with them his love for sports. He played flag football with them, and tried to share some of the values you learn through playing competitive sports. He is also a big supporter of his high school, cheering on the boys and girls basketball teams at every game. Casey's brother plays sports for the University of Tennessee and Casey never misses a game--always cheering on the team.

SM: What is it like being a parent at the Special Olympics?
LM:
To be a parent to a child with special needs is a blessing. I always say that God chose our family because He knew we could handle special needs. There are days that challenge us, but at the end of the day--that smile he has when he wins a race--its all worth it.

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Some of 2014's winners!

This week, watching Casey run made my heart melt. He finished second in the 100M race, and when he crossed the line, I saw him looking for our faces. When he got the medal, he smiled from ear to ear. As a parent, that is your happiest moment. Its hard to describe that joy, and the happiness he has for others and for the game. There is a special bond you have with a child who has special needs, and its so strong in that moment when he looks for us, with his accomplishment. He knows we are always going to be there for him, in the stands, whether he wins or loses.

SM: Are your other sons also involved in sports?
LM:
When Casey competes in the Special Olympics, its always a family affair. His two brothers are his biggest fans no matter the sport. Both of my other sons play baseball and Casey loves to watch them too. Its very exciting, having a family that can't wait to watch each other succeed.

SM: How are you involved in the Special Olympics?
LM:
I am the coach for Track and Field in our county. I have always loved running, and when Casey did too, I organized a team through Learn.org. We started with just four athletes and now we have 15! Every year, we compete at the Tennessee state-level games, and I just cannot describe how exciting it is to watch our team compete. They have developed such a passion for training and competing. I love it. I love being there, seeing the smiles on their faces.

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A fan a race where Casey competed.

No one asked us to be a parent to a child with special needs, but Casey has taught us so much. The journey we have been on, the people we have met, the places we have been--it has all been so rewarding and I would not change it for the world.

The ride we took this week with Casey, and its a memory we will cherish for the rest of our lives. The medals he won--he will have them for a lifetime. As a mom and son, its incredible to share the love for running and to have our special bond.

Special thanks to Lauren Bailey for her assistance on this article.