Special Olympics connects children globally through unified programmes


Laureus Ambassador Nolli Waterman participates in rugby session at Special Olympics Nippon Tokyo in October 2019


Florida athlete Chris Nikic shattered stereotypes when he became the first person with Down’s syndrome to complete a full IRONMAN earlier this year.

The 21-year-old’s astonishing feat was the ultimate show of resolve and determination as he twice recovered from falling off his bike to conquer the gruelling 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile marathon run.

As well as landing him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, Nikic was also announced as a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador following his remarkable achievement.

“I am honoured to serve as a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador. My teammates and coaches at Special Olympics helped me get started with my training for IRONMAN and prove to the world that people with intellectual disabilities are capable of anything!” Nikic commented after his appointment. 
To stay motivated during the long months of training and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris and his father Nik developed the 1% better principle – to get better, faster and stronger by 1% every day.
Having recently graduated high school, he will now focus on trying to qualify for the triathlon at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.
Nikic is yet another success story from the organisation that aims to create a new world of inclusion and community, where every single person is accepted and welcomed, regardless of ability or disability.
In total, Special Olympics encompasses over 5.7 million athletes and 1.1 million volunteers in 220 countries across the world.
The Laureus Sport For Good Foundation has been supporting Special Olympics for 20 years and the organisation’s founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was the inaugural winner of the Laureus Sport For Good Award in 2000.
“Living in almost every village in the world, there is a person with mental retardation. They believe that to play on the field of sports someday, they too will be loved and admired by the world,” Kennedy Shriver said in her acceptance speech.
“For too long they have been told they cannot contribute, for too long they have been told they have no gifts, for too long they have been told no. Yet all they ask for is a chance.”
Five-time Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Nadia Comaneci is both a Laureus Academy Member and Special Olympics Global Ambassador and shared her thoughts on what makes the organisations so special.

“I am interested in everything that Laureus does, but I have to confess my real passion is for Special Olympics, the organisation which works with people with intellectual disabilities to create a world of inclusion, where every single person is accepted and welcomed.

Nadia Comaneci
“I have had many highlights. I remember visiting a Special Olympics school in Shanghai on behalf of Laureus as long ago as 2003, and it was really exciting during the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2015, also in Shanghai, to go and see Special Olympic youngsters trying out skating on an ice rink in the city. Laureus support for these incredible children is as strong as ever.

Laureus Academy Member Nadia Comaneci inspires Special Olympics athletes in Shanghai in 2015


“I am always overwhelmed by the love and the passion of the children that I meet through Laureus and Special Olympics. Sport has totally changed their lives and given them so much more to live for. That’s what Laureus means to me and why I am so passionate about doing what I can to help.” 
We recently caught up with Joe Hergert, Senior Manager, Strategic Gifts at Special Olympics, to discuss how the organisation has been impacted by COVID-19 and what the future holds in 2021 and beyond.
“The pandemic has been really difficult for everybody in the charity sector because there are so many unknowns,” Hergert commented.
“At the beginning, it was a question of do we re-do everything internally and virtually or just press pause and cross our fingers that we can resume normal activities in a few months?
“I work with a lot of Foundation partners and Laureus were one of the first to convene everybody and share best practices from other organisations that they support. That was very useful in terms of helping us decide what to do.
“A lot of the work that we do is about getting people together, both those with and without intellectual disabilities, putting them on the same team, playing together and learning from each other.
“As much as we would love that to happen in a virtual environment, the magic of Special Olympics is the in-person connection that you make with somebody, so it’s definitely been a challenge.”
The current cycle of Laureus-supported projects was supposed to wrap up in December 2020 but has been extended into December 2021 to ensure they can still be implemented as intended.
Over the past two years, Laureus has supported Special Olympics projects in China, Japan, Russia, Nigeria, and South Korea, ranging from projects focusing on female empowerment, skills for life curriculums, and Unified programmes aimed at integrating disabled school-age children into society.
One such beneficiary of a Laureus-supported project is Huang Xufeng, a young boy from Shanghai who took part in a Unified tennis programme for school-age children in China.
Huang hails from a poorly educated and financially struggling family, something that has significantly delayed his development and meant he has fallen behind his peers in middle school.
His limited knowledge of literacy and numeracy prevented him from his school’s regular teaching and activities and led to him being isolated and marginalised in class.
After discovering his impressive athletic ability through a game of badminton with his father, Huang was enrolled in the unified tennis programme and immediately reaped the benefits.
Huang gained great confidence and recognition from playing tennis, eagerly supported by his peers, coaches and parents, and his sporting achievements also led to improvement in class. 
“The landscape varies greatly in different countries, with some integrating children of all abilities and disabilities, while others have segregated education environments,” Hergert explained. 
“In China, they have special schools for individuals with disabilities and this can sometimes lead to a lack of interaction between those that have intellectual disabilities compared to those without.
“With our Unified tennis programme, we’ve been able to bring together two completely different schools and it has benefited both sets of individuals as a result.
“In so many cases we see that people without disabilities have never had the chance to interact with someone with an intellectual disability and there can be a stigma associated with that.
“That’s where sport can be a great equaliser. They aren’t competing at an academic level, instead working together collaboratively on the same team and that is the amazing power of what our movement does.”
Special Olympics projects encompass varying levels of volunteers, athletes, and funding support, with Laureus altering its role four years ago to provide support at a global level rather than having individual programmes apply for specific funding. 
“The funding, leadership skills and best practice that Laureus provides is extremely important,” Hergert continued.
“Special Olympics is a global movement, and we have offices in over 220 countries, but although we have a huge footprint, the capacity of each programme varies significantly. 
“Some program offices are very sophisticated with paid staff and a large network of support, but other countries will be run by one person on the ground and a few volunteers with annual budgets of a few thousand dollars.
“That’s why the work Laureus does is so instrumental because without their support some of these programmes would simply not be sustainable.” 

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