They say the summer of 2003 was an ordinary, average, run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden summer. But it wasn’t—because we had the Special Olympics World Games and that made the summer remarkable!
It was special for thousands of people from all over the world, for thousands of different reasons. If you ask anyone across the width and breadth of the country, ‘Why was it so special?’, each person could give you a different answer. For me it was special because of the special people I met—special athletes, special volunteers, special spectators, but above all special friendships formed for life. Special People all smiling, all happy, all striving, all competing, all winning—if not medals, then certainly our hearts.
Kilcock, County Kildare, played host to 94 of the Irish athletes and my husband and I were privileged to be the host family to two of the athletes and a trainer for the week preceding the games. The day their coaches drove into the GAA Club grounds is one etched in my memory for evermore. There was an immediate feeling of warmth toward people we had never met in our lives before. It was an extraordinary and completely unexpected feeling felt by every single person who awaited the athletes. Was it emotional?—definitely. Was it expectancy?—definitely. Was it caring—definitely. It was every good feeling you ever had and more, and those feelings towards the athletes and towards each person involved in the entertaining and organising of all the many and varied events never abated for the whole week. From the moment they arrived the mood of the town changed. A lot of hard work had been put in by a lot of people to make the athletes’ stay as enjoyable as possible. Nobody really knew what to expect. Every day that week was
What we got was a reward far in excess of our effort, even though that effort was extraordinary; their reward was to realise their dreams.
It was wonderful to be a spectator at the sporting events, where to come last was an achievement celebrated on the podium with almost as much joy as to be first. The dedication, courage and commitment were awe-inspiring. It was a humbling experience to see people’s handicaps overcome to achieve what they did. To read of the efforts of teams to reach Ireland—in spite of wars, quarantines, lack of finance—was inspiring. The athletes cheered each other and we did too, regardless of race, creed, gender—it was a lesson for us all.
The opening ceremony was a ‘spectacular’, but it was not Riverdance or Westlife that we will remember, but the radiant smiles of the participating athletes who were so happy to be there. It was the dancing on the pitch; it was the athletes hugging each other and everyone else around them. It was the flag-waving crowd recognising ‘their team’—the athletes who had descended from all parts of the world (and in Kilcock from all parts of Ireland) to brighten up each of the host towns. It was they and their enthusiasm—not the bunting, the flags, or the sunshine—that that brightened up our towns.
Then the closing ceremony—it had all been so quick! Proud athletes wearing their medals like a badge of honour, waving to the crowds, the crowds waving back, a sea of colour and applause, necks craning and binoculars out to catch a glimpse of ‘our’ athletes, our new friends. More dancing, more hugging. Smiles, more smiles—a month of smiles.