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Opinion: Special Olympics Champ Shows How Sports Transform Lives

By:  Julie Besonen Oct 30, 2012
Susie Doyens

Susie Doyens, a Special Olympics athlete. 

Susie Doyens, a Special Olympics athlete, barely spoke for the first nine years of her life — she felt too shy and self-conscious. But today, at age 35, this athlete, who was born with Down syndrome, is not only a spokeperson for the organization but her feats of triumph are so striking that others are now at a loss for words.

The Pride Medals Bring

Susie Doyens can give Michael Phelps a run for his money when it comes to medals. At last count, she's won 202. Her main passion is golf, but she has competed in more than 10 different sports, including swimming, track-and-field, and basketball.

The medals crowd her bedroom in Rotonda West, Florida. "We had to get a new hanger for them because the weight was so heavy it pulled out of the wall," says Lynda Doyens, Susie's mother.

Susie still has a little trouble expressing herself but that hasn't stopped her from making more than 300 speeches as a Special Olympics Global Messenger, a role she took on in 2001. Over the years, this woman of few words has addressed thousands around the country, sharing the powerful impact the organization has had on her life, how it's given her the confidence to look strangers in the eye instead of at her shoes.

Enjoying Friendly Competition

Special Olympics unofficially began in 1962, in Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver's Maryland backyard. The activist couple (Shriver founded the Peace Corps) hosted athletic games as a way for intellectually challenged girls and boys to have fun. Eunice, a daughter of the illustrious Kennedy clan, was empathetic because her beloved sister Rosemary was developmentally disabled and institutionalized.

Following energetic lobbying and funding efforts, the first official International Special Olympics Summer Games was held at Soldier Field, in Chicago, in 1968. More than 1,000 intellectually disabled people from 26 states and Canada vied for medals. At the opening ceremony Eunice Kennedy Shriver introduced the Special Olympics oath, which is still recited today:

Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt.

Currently, more than 3 million Special Olympic athletes train year-round in 181 countries and all 50 states. The Shrivers' son Tim is now the organization's chairman.

Slideshow: Special Olympic Athlete Susie Doyens

Staying Active Every Day

Susie Doyens doesn't know if she'll make it to the Special Olympics World Games in South Korea in January, but every day she spends an hour running and doing weights and fitness exercises. She plays golf for three and a half hours twice a week.

"I wish that everyone could experience the pleasure and fulfillment of being involved in such a wonderful program," Susie says. "It is so important for everyone to feel good about themselves, and Special Olympics has given me and other special athletes the opportunity to be the best we can be."

How Golf Set Susie Free

It took a while for Susie to become as confident as she is today. Before getting involved with Special Olympics when she was eight, there was almost nothing that could induce Susie to talk to anyone else. She was so fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Her family tried various things to bring Susie out of her shell. Encouraged by child development books, Lynda began playing baseball with Susie as soon as she could walk. She quickly recognized Susie’s athletic appetite and enrolled Susie in ballet class at the age of two. Lynda and her husband, Dan, also took the shy young athlete to a therapist weekly and taught her tennis and swimming. But she was still very quiet. Susie would communicate with her young cousins, but didn’t want to speak with other people.  

"Even when she was very little, photographers couldn't get Susie to smile," Lynda recalls. "All I ever saw was her head down. I felt education would be the key to everything, and we sent her to school. It was so painful to watch all those years when she couldn't mix."

The answer, Lynda found out, was simple. "We had to give her something to talk about that she loves."

Golf set Susie free. At the time, the family lived in St. Charles, Illinois, where they were able to connect with people from Special Olympics. A golf pro who worked with the program paired up with Susie for lessons. Her winning streak soon took off.

Finding Her Voice — and Putting It to Good Use

Lynda and Dan Doyens were shocked in 2001 when their bottled-up daughter said she wanted to train to be a Global Messenger. Lynda told her she'd have to be the one to make the call and show she was interested in becoming a public representative. After a couple of days, Susie made the call.

"It's tough to follow through on things, especially when they're frightening, but when Susie makes up her mind to do something, she does it," says Lynda.

Still, Susie's mother had her worries. The day of the audition Susie wasn't feeling well and sat with her head on the desk. Yet when it came time to give her first speech, she walked up to the podium without any coaxing.

"People's mouths fell open," says Lynda. "I cried for the first 50 speeches she gave, it was so emotionally overwhelming for me, and I know it was for her. I realized she was going to keep on going, and she wasn't going to quit."

Explaining where she found the courage to face an audience, Susie says, "I was definitely scared because I stuttered a lot, but it was fun and challenging." At the top of the page of every speech she gives, Susie will write an encouraging note to herself: 'What would a leader do?' It helps her find the strength to face people, and even tell jokes.

"She loves applause and standing ovations," Lynda chimes in. "She stands and smiles, and I have to signal her to come back."

Susie has continued to take on new challenges and is eager to try the sport of paddleboarding. Other than sharks and bees, she says she is not afraid of anything, including the Special Olympics Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan that will be held on February 2nd. For the twelfth time in as many years, she will leap into icy waters as a way of giving back to the organization that has helped her so much. Each time she's participated, she has raised up to $2,000.

But just because she is an old pro, don’t think that taking the plunge is easy for her.

"It hurts the whole time I'm in the water," Susie says. "They have to break the ice so we can jump in. It's awful."

"Every year she says she's not going to do it again," Lynda says. "Then she does it and gives a speech at the party afterward, and she gets so much applause she decides to do it again next year. You just jump in and do it, don't you?"

Susie, going shy again, nods her head yes.

PSA: Susie's Story in 60 Seconds