101 Days, 101 Strangers, 101 Stories: Day 13

Last night, the Special Olympics Canada Games came to a close. This morning, I woke up early to help the athletes prepare to leave and to wrap up some logistical things for our sustainability team.

As I was running around making sure everything was going smoothly, Chuck — an athlete from team Ontario — came up to me smiling with his hands up, as though he wanted a high-5. When I gave him one, his fingers curled forward, making for a pretty awful high-5. We tried again but no success. Perhaps he wasn’t trying to give me a high-5.

When he put his hands up again, I gently put mine up to his and he curled his fingers down into the spaces between my fingers. This, I learned, was what he had been trying to do all along. It’s his signature greeting. He told me that this is how he greets everyone back home.

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Chuck is a swimmer. One of his favourite styles of swimming is freestyle, and he won a medal for it yesterday!

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This wasn’t Chuck’s first time competing in the Special Olympic Games. When I asked him which Games were his favourite he said “no, no, they’re all really great”. Something about the way he responded made me quickly realize that I had asked a pretty useless question. What did it matter which Games experience was better? How does one begin to make such a comparison between two very qualitative things? What I should have asked instead is what he enjoyed about each event.

Something I’ve learned over this past week is that more often than not, folks with intellectual disabilities do not get caught up in competition. Did Vancouver host a better national Olympics or was it Kingston? There is no “better”. There is only “great” and perhaps that manifests itself in different ways but one is not better than the other. A medal might award someone who performed better by specific standards but it’s a hopeless indication of who truly enjoyed the experience. Having fun and doing your personal best, Chuck reminded me, is what matters most.

Perhaps when we’re busy focusing on what’s better and who’s better and where’s better, we end up losing sight of what’s great and why.

The entire Games event was more of a sports collaboration than a sports competition. Perhaps that’s why the athletes were so happy.

In his free time, Chuck enjoys collecting pins. He wanted to take a selfie with the pins on his hat, his medal, and, as he insisted, me.

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As he waited in line to board the bus to leave for the airport, he ran back to give me a hug and his signature greeting about 17 times. I’m happy that I got to learn a bit about his story today. Maybe he was the best athlete at the Games. Maybe he wasn’t. What I’m certain of, though, is that it doesn’t matter. He made a lot of people smile today.

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