All over the world, athletes are gearing up for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea.
But whether or not they ever make it to a worldwide competition, Special Olympics athletes are pushing themselves and their teammates to reach their own kind of victories.
The Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
From January 14–17, 700 athletes met in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany for the national Winter Games of the Special Olympics, where they competed in seven categories, including alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and speedskating. Germany holds national games every year, alternating between the Summer Games and the Winter Games.
The International Special Olympics is the world’s biggest sports movement for people with intellectual disabilities or multiple handicaps, which is officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
Practicing Hard as a Team
Tobias Meyer had been preparing for this moment for months — competing in the national games. Finally, the scoreboard in the sports center was displaying his team’s name. Proud and a bit excited, he and his six teammates stepped onto the playing field to compete for a medal. Tobias is the goalkeeper for a floorball team — which is like ice hockey without the ice. Since this sport’s inclusion in the Special Olympics, he and his friends from northern Germany have been training full-steam twice a week, giving it everything they have for up to two hours. Their ultimate goal has been to participate in the Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. They don’t know whether they’ll win but what they do know is that during the games, they will do everything in their power to prove to themselves and others that “there is a hero in every one of us.”
Tobias is an experienced athlete who plays table tennis, is into track and field and loves to swim. And he has been playing indoor hockey for a decade. “Hockey is my life,” Tobias explained to us with a grin — “I’m the team captain.” His assistant Maike adds with a laugh that Tobias is also “sometimes Capt’n Chaos.”
Competing nationally was nothing new for these two. Since 2002, they have been traveling regularly to the national Summer Games where they have done well. Tobias even brought home a bronze medal in racquetball from the World Games in Shanghai.
Together We Are Strong: Both Athletes and Volunteers
Also standing at the edge of the floorball field in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was Clarita Stachels, an employee of
The benefit of Unified Sports, says Sven Albrecht, the National Director of Special Olympics Deutschland, is that, “combined sports teams allow all the players to learn from one another and simultaneously help to break down barriers and initial fears they may have had in dealing with one another … Unified Sports will help us to strengthen bonds between people with and without disabilities while promoting social inclusion.”
What Really Counts: Recognition, Trust and a Sense of Community
Clarita admits that she previously had little contact with people with intellectual disabilities. But when the teams were playing floorball, she had absolutely no time to think about that; she immediately found that the athletes’ exuberant joy and strong team spirit were contagious, making her feel like she belonged. “I’ve learned from the Special Olympics that sports can be different from what I was used to in the past. It’s a competition with no losers — one where every athlete can be proud of his individual performance while simultaneously truly rejoicing in the performance of others.”
Here, more than anywhere else, fair play is the name of the game. If an athlete is inadvertently too aggressive when taking the ball away from his opponent, he will stop to make sure that the opponent is alright. Even though the players take every game seriously and everyone tries hard, cooperation is just as important. Asked whether he will win, one of the athletes answered: “Of course, but only if you all cheer me on.”
The volunteers did that with great enthusiasm. Nevertheless, that wasn’t enough for the floorball team from northern Germany to earn a medal. But after a few moments of disappointment, the athletes agreed that just being here was worth it.