Marnie Hornsby's eyes light up as she talks about how Special Olympics changed her life nearly seven years ago by boosting her self-confidence and encouraging her to come out of her shell.

“Growing up, I was always distant from people,” she said. Hornsby, who was born with epilepsy, hardly spoke as a kid and had few friends.

“But now I have thousands,” she continued, animating her words with her hands. “I’m much more likely to come up to you, hug you and ask how you’re doing. Special Olympics has taught me a lot… I do things I didn’t know I could do.”

That includes alpine skiing, one of nearly a dozen sports Hornsby plays through a local Special Olympics program in Henry County, Ga., just south of Atlanta. After winning multiple gold medals at the regional level, Team USA selected her to hit the slopes next week in Pyeongchang, South Korea, at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. There she will join more than 3,300 athletes from 120 countries who will compete in 55 events in seven categories.

“Marnie is open and happy,” said her mom, Paige Hornsby. “She’s our little social butterfly. We like to say we have to make an appointment to see her… and it’s all because of this program.”

From a Vision to a Movement

What began in 1968 as the vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver quickly grew into a global movement to empower people with intellectual disabilities through the power of sport, as well as overcome stereotypes and break down barriers. As the longest-running global sponsor of Special Olympics, Coca-Cola provides monetary and in-kind contributions, volunteer assistance, equipment, uniforms and other materials and services for local and international competitions and community activities worldwide. 

Both organizations share a commitment to celebrating humanity and moments of connection and community, and to promoting acceptance, inclusion and optimism.

“Our role is to help build awareness and excitement,” said Peter Franklin, group director, Worldwide Sports and Events Management for Coca-Cola, and a Special Olympics Georgia board member.

Coca-Cola Korea is spreading the word leading up to and during the Special Olympics World Winter Games through unique celebrity ambassador activations, in-store displays, fundraising activities, volunteer programs, a TV commercial and more.

Just last week, the company hosted a special sendoff at its global headquarters in Atlanta for Hornsby and her Special Olympics Georgia teammate, Sissy Cooley, who will compete in speed skating at the World Winter Games. Several hundred employees attended the festive celebration, where they signed good luck cards for the two local heroes and played bocce ball, basketball and table tennis with local Special Olympics athletes and special guest, former professional basketball star Dikembe Mutombo.

The jovial hoops star and humanitarian – who, at 7-foot-3-inches, towered over even the Coca-Cola polar bear – danced with the athletes and playfully defended those who tried their luck at scoring a basket over him.

Mutombo has served as a Special Olympics Global Ambassador for several years, hosting basketball clinics around the world. He became interested in the organization when he visited a hospital his charitable foundation built in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was born. Parents there were ashamed to bring kids with intellectual disabilities out in public – even when they needed medical care.

“Special Olympics has taught me a lot about dignity, and how we as human beings must respect and love each other despite our differences and physical abilities,” he said. “Everyone needs to be included and accepted.”

‘Let Me Be Brave

Hornsby and Cooley became fast friends when they met for the first time in December at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where they prepared for the World Winter Games. According to their coach, Tara Torbert, they are looking forward to what promises to be the experience of a lifetime.

“I get to see these athletes see the world,” said Torbert, a special education teacher and mother of a son with an intellectual disability. “It’s a major responsibility, but one of the biggest honors I’ve been blessed with in my life.”

The Georgia contingent will spend a few days sightseeing and learning about Korean culture before competition begins on Jan. 29.

When Hornsby was asked if she hoped to win a medal, she quickly nodded.

“But as the Special Olympics motto says, ‘Let me win, but if I can’t win, let me be brave in my attempt,” she added. “Because that’s all you can do.”