What originally started as a small summer camp for young people with intellectual disabilities at the Washington, D.C. home of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962, and what has since grown to become the global Special Olympics movement we know today, will have an expanded presence in Seattle next summer, when the organization's fourth annual USA Games lands in the Pacific Northwest.
Three-thousand athletes and 1,000 coaches from every state in the country will converge on the state of Washington in July 2018, alongside 10,000 volunteers, to compete in 14 Olympic-type team and individual sports. From basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, and tennis to bowling, flag football, golf, swimming, bocce and more, the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games offer athletes an opportunity "to showcase their ability at their highest level and be part of something on a national scale," said Beth Knox, President and CEO of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.
"They get to showcase their abilities to a whole region of people who haven't got to see them compete and be a part of something bigger than themselves," Knox said. "So it's an amazing experience, not only for the athletes and their families, but also all the spectators and volunteers who participate in it."
The Seahawks have signed on as one of the event's largest supporters. Earlier this season, to help build excitement for next summer's games, the Seahawks in partnership with Coca-Cola hosted a large group of Special Olympians at its NFL headquarters in Renton, where athletes had a chance to learn flag football techniques and coaching points from a handful of Seahawks Legends, many of whom will double as ambassadors for Seattle's USA Games.
"It was important to me because it's a marginalized population that people tend to forget about, but they all have talents and skills and gifts that they want to bring to the world," Ray Roberts, a 1992 first-round pick of the Seahawks, said of why he chose to get involved as an ambassador. "So if I can assist in that happening somehow, then that's what I wanted to do. Too many people focus on their disabilities and not on their abilities, so I wanted to put the focus there."
Special Olympics Washington, the state's local chapter of the larger Special Olympics organization, submitted a bid in 2013 to host the 2018 USA Games in Seattle. As one of the nation's centers of diversity, unity, inclusion, and acceptance, some of Special Olympics' primary ideals, Knox said Seattle was ultimately chosen from among a list of other competitors as the host site for next year's games.
"Special Olympics North America awarded Seattle the 2018 games, so we immediately started planning and are working up to create really a spectacular regional event next summer," she said.
"It's going to be amazing," added Dave Lenox, President and CEO at Special Olympics Washington. "I've worked with Special Olympics a long time and you just can't imagine the power of people seeing our athletes in a huge event like this that's well respected. … It just means a lot to us. To see the games come and you see ESPN covering it and you see all of that, especially for Team Washington to know that the Seahawks are going to help them get ready, it's going to be really powerful.
"It's a great eye-opening experience and a chance for someone to see this huge range of athletes and abilities and dedication to sport."
Ahead of next summer's Special Olympics USA Games set to take place in Seattle, the Seahawks, in partnership with Coca-Cola, hosted a group of Special Olympics athletes at team headquarters on Saturday, October 28 for an afternoon of flag football with NFL Legends.
Athletes and coaches will be the ones in the spotlight next summer, with events set to take place at the University of Washington, Angle Lake, Celebration Park, Kenmore Lanes, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University, King County Aquatic Center, and Willows Run Golf Club. But much of the build up to the July event will rely on Special Olympics building a volunteer base 10,000 strong. Individuals can get involved in a variety of ways, Knox said, from front end event setup to being part of the organization's fans in the stands program, and much more in between. Knox noted the USA Games won't come to Seattle again for a very long time, calling on Special Olympics supporters to be part of a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
"The real reason they should do this is not only to be part of this amazing event, but because their lives themselves will be transformed," she said. "Being part of the Special Olympics on any level is a magical experience and you really start to understand what it means to be inclusive, what it means to be welcoming of people of all abilities, and be a part of something that is so large in this region and impactful."
For Roberts, who's part of a long list of USA Games ambassadors that also includes plenty of others with Seahawks ties such as Jordan Babineaux, George Fant, Jacob Green, Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Holmgren, Brock Huard, Dave Krieg, Steve Largent, Sean Locklear, Marshawn Lynch, Mack Strong, Marcus Trufant, and Jim Zorn, volunteering his time with Special Olympics has allowed him to be part of something he finds to be ultra rewarding.
"When you get around the athletes you see their smiles and their energy and their commitment and their sacrifice, you can't help but feel good inside," Roberts said. "That as crazy as the world can feel sometimes, it is actually a really cool place. There's some really cool things happening, there's some really cool people doing some really cool things for some really special people. And then in return those athletes are giving to us empathy and sympathy and joy and happiness and putting smiles on your face. You can't be around a Special Olympic athlete and be in a bad mood. … It just doesn't happen."
Individuals looking to get involved will have a chance to learn more about the opportunity this weekend before the Seahawks' Week 15 game against the Los Angeles Rams at CenturyLink Field, where Special Olympics representatives will have a presence pregame in Touchdown City. You can also learn more about volunteer opportunities by heading directly to SpecialOlympicsUSAGames.org.
"Know that our athletes are everywhere," reminded Lenox. "It's easy to look past them and society has for centuries just not even seen this population. They're amazing. They are so much fun to be around and they see the world through a little bit different lens, so it really opens up your eyes a little bit. So open up a little bit, make yourself a little vulnerable, and maybe listen. You're not just there to help them, they're there to help you, too. ... It will change your life, and for the better."