Usually, it takes a sibling, a neighbor or a friend. Somebody with an intellectual disability who is close to us and could make us understand how gifted he or she is.

But what if we have no opportunity to meet such a person?

Then we might have adopted certain stereotypes, or we might believe there is no way to communicate or to see his or her unique qualities. Approximately 2.5 percent of the global population has an intellectual disability, as many as 200 million people. We can spend our lives without having discovered their potential. Isn’t it unbelievable?

I never thought that a person with an intellectual disability was somehow defective, a less valuable human being. But I do admit that I had no idea how talented he or she could be. I was lucky enough to have an eye-opening experience as a journalist that changed my view completely. Last month, I went to Austria, invited by The Coca Cola Company, to cover the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games. Since 1968, the company has led a true commitment to showcasing the unlimited potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities and the power of sports to bring people together and transform lives.

Well, this trip transformed my life, too.

The spectacular opening ceremony was held at the Planai stadium in Schladming. Maria Naber, a dancer with Down syndrom, was the opening performer. Her performance was incredibly entracing. The highlight of the evening was the Parade of Athletes. Watching these athletes pour into the stadium, I found myself nearly overcome with joy. The pride on their faces revealed that they were really having the time of their life. Family members and coaches saw their loved ones grow in self-confidence and self-worth. More than 15,000 spectators shared the same feeling, the same heartbeat. 

People with intellectual disabilities are empowered to achieve their dreams. I experienced this first-hand, in the heart of the four-mountain ski complex at Ramsau Rittisberg, on the first competition day. 

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Journalists and volunteers from all around the world had the pleasure of cheering the athletes who were competing at a very high level. The fans were supportive to everyone! The clanging of massive cowbells, the whirl of spinning noisemakers, and the drone of vuvuzelas along with the cheering crowd created an incredibly warm atmosphere. 

Later that day, we met Johanna Pramstaller, Special Olympics Global Messenger for the Austrian Games. “People with disabilities can push the limits the same way professional athletes do, and for this reason, they deserve the same acknowledgement and respect,” she told us.

They have earned my admiration and made me want to participate in the next games as a volunteer. Thank you Coca-Cola!

Margarita Pournara is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. She is a staff writer and a columnist at the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, where she focuses on urbanism, archeology, politics, travel and food.