The competition is like Little League or gym class. Only the athletes are special. Sallie Tisdale ventures into the world of Special Olympics.
July 1991
Photographed by Mary Ellen mark

Long-distance runner David Maeyaert, 25, left, with coach Albert Alcade. Top athletes such as David are as skilled as Olympic record holders of the first part of the century.

Lauri Hyde, 20, right, with her sister and coach, Sandi, training for the international games.

You guys got your measurements from last week?" The coach addressed his team near the long-jump pit. It was a cool, sunny spring morning, and the Cleveland High School track in Portland, Oregon, was filled with athletes moving from one practice event to another. One man yelled back from the group, “Uh, no, coach! My mind's a blank!" Then he laughed loudly.

"Mine's fourteen feet!” shouted another, and the first speaker turned to stare at him.

"Yeah, riiiight! Right!" Inspired, he yelled again. "Mine's twenty-five point six!"

His friend snorted with derision. "Mine's two thousand!"

I was sitting on the bleachers nearby, beside three young women. As the men began practicing, the women clapped, yelled, and chanted cheers. "Wow, look at those legs!" screamed the most vocal, to a blushing young man. "Take off your shades, dude, it might help!"

A skinny man with a scruffy beard hurtled down the asphalt path. He wore brown polyester pants, a baseball cap, a blue windbreaker. He left the ground in a flailing leap through the air before thudding into the sand several feet away. Without a word he stood up, brushed the sand off the seat of his pants, picked up his ancient wallet from where it had fallen, and walked to the back of the line.

Next was David Maeyaert, a twenty-five-year-old who races in the five-thousand meter and the thirteen-kilometer half marathon. He had the relaxed, confident posture of the long-distance runner, a long, lean body and a long face with a shy smile full of teeth. He loped down the path with easy speed but leapt with limbs akimbo, like a water bird taking reluctant flight.

After a few more runs, coach Albert Alcalde moved the group of men over to the high jump for their first practice of the season in that event. He mimed the approach and lift-off, and the group, bursting with high spirits, yelled for him to try it. Finally, shaking his head, Albert trotted from the side in a long arc and jumped, barely clearing the low bar. He looked chastened, but his team was pleased: "Ace!" they chanted. "Ace! Ace! Ace!"

For half an hour, Alcalde's team practiced the approach and jump, until all but one had knocked the bar down at various heights. A fellow named Eddie had never tried the high jump before but found the set of movements natural. He grinned after each soft landing on the pad. Beyond the shifting, cheerful group I could see back to the long-jump pit. A very short, fat man with the round head and the flat, blank features of Down syndrome lumbered slowly down the path to the sand. He came to the line, halted, and then jumped from a standstill, landing several inches away in the sand. I was too far to hear his coach's praise, too close to the noise of the team at the high jump. I turned back in time to see Eddie run to the bar and sail over, clearing five feet on his first attempt. Like David Maeyaert, Eddie is at the top of the Special Olympics heap.

Mentally retarded people are strangely absent from our lives. They live in pockets, by the millions: in institutions, with relatives, in group homes, and sometimes they live alone, disguised by their sameness rather than their differences. My own irregular intimacy with retarded people has come about through my own efforts, through the seeking out of their company -most recently, as a consultant to two group homes for the profoundly and severely retarded. The world of the retarded is extraordinarily varied -almost, I want to say, more varied than my own or that of my peers- because the retarded have almost all of our characteristics and they have more. I think it is not something new, but rather something saved -something not lost that I have lost. So my connection with the retarded has been a glad one, whether with people so independent as to beg the definition of retardation, or with the severely retarded, who do not speak or meet my eyes, who move through this world in a way I wouldn't dare to represent.

Even before I knew the retarded, I knew about the Special Olympics. It is hard to miss, if by nothing more than the parade of images given us by the media: happy winners breaking the tape at the end of the race, medalists standing shyly on the dais. Special Olympics serves close to a million retarded athletes at many levels of competition. (A few Special Olympics athletes are not retarded but have severe physical handicaps.) Special Olympics is served in turn by at least a half million volunteers, many (but by no means all) of them relatives of the athletes themselves. With six thousand athletes participating, the International Special Olympics, to be held in July in Minneapolis, will be the largest sporting event in the world in 1991.

Special Olympics is a lofty enterprise as well as a large one; one of its goals is "to see and understand the true potential of every human being.” Undoubtedly the Special Olympics serves its athletes as no other recreational program for the so-called handicapped has before. There are virtually no costs to participate; many athletes receive free shoes and sometimes uniforms; when they travel, transportation and lodging are free. The Special Olympics is a well-oiled machine, practiced at public relations. But the games, for better and worse, are as familiar to me as Little League and gym class. Special Olympics is special only by virtue of its athletes.

David Maeyaert practiced the shot put while I sat on the grass nearby with Albert Alcalde. David had submitted shyly and with reticence to my questions, his answers transparent and short. Yes, he loved to run; he was good at it; Albert was a good coach.

Albert is a fire fighter, a wiry, self-contained man and a Special Olympics volunteer for four years. He was in his element at the track, leaning back on his elbow in the morning sun, dressed in little more than nylon shorts and a windbreaker. As we talked people came by to greet him, teasing, flirting, asking questions. I watched four fat middle-aged men run a fifty-meter dash, their arms swinging wildly. One shouted as he ran, "Look out! Here we come!"

"I used to be a pretty competitive runner," Albert said between interruptions. "Then I got injured, and I was not really running anymore. I saw an ad for Special Olympics volunteers, and it happened to be track and field, so I hit it right. Now it's really important for me to come out here."

David climbed the small hill toward us. He'd finished with the shot put and was ready for his training sprints. David, who works full-time as a busboy at Elmer's Pancake and Steak House, is training for the summer games.

Albert instructed him, "Run two-hundreds now. Check your watch. I want them to be about forty seconds each.”

"Forty seconds. Right." And David was gone, running steadily around the oval past knots of people. In the center of the field a group of people in wheelchairs were taking turns throwing a Frisbee through a hoop.

“I trained with him about three times a week my first year," continued Albert, "and we became good friends. He's more independent every year -he does it all on his own, really. And he gets around; I see him at other races. It's amazing how independent he is."

A few days later, on a cold, rainy April evening, I met Lauri Hyde and her family. Lauri is, like David, a self-motivated and independent athlete, and she also is going to the international games. Now twenty, Lauri has at various times played volleyball, basketball, softball, and soccer, bowled, participated in gymnastics, skied, and lifted weights in Special Olympics. She swam and earned a letter on her high school swim team, and it is as a swimmer that she will go to Minneapolis, along with her older sister, Sandi, who is her coach.

Lauri sat beside me on the sofa, a quiet, neat woman with a soft nasal voice. Lauri has Down syndrome. The physical appearance of Down syndrome -slanted eyes, a flat nose, a slightly protruding tongue in a small mouth- is almost synonymous with mental retardation itself. But organic causes of retardation, such as Down syndrome, account for only a fifth of all cases. The rest -millions of people-are considered mentally retarded without any apparent physical problems or defects.

Down syndrome can have a mild or severe impact on a person; in Lauri's case, she is primarily hampered by the short spine and short limbs of Down, a real disadvantage in swimming. She looked to her parents and her sister for cues as she described her events: the one-hundred meter freestyle, the fifty-meter breaststroke, the individual medley. She is at the highest level of skill for Special Olympics swimming and is one of only six swimmers from Oregon going to Minneapolis.

Lauri's mother, Tracy, admitted that the intensity of competition in Special Olympics had increased in recent years. But Lauri had always been competitive, she added. "We went down to a race when she was about six years old. They gave out gold, silver, and bronze medals, and Lauri got fifth place. This really nice lady gave her a green ribbon with Fifth Place on it and told her, 'Congratulations,' and Lauri looked at it and said, 'Fifth?' and threw it back at the lady and burst into tears. She wanted very badly to win."

Lauri giggled behind her small hand. She'd heard this story before. Then Sandi left to teach a swimming lesson, and Lauri led me to her bedroom, with its posters and stuffed animals, to show me her medals: gold, silver, gold, gold, gold.

Karen Carrico, left, with her mother, Kristin. “What has she taught me?” says Kristin. “That life is good.”

A few years ago I met a man named Ron Jones. Ron has been a Special Olympics coach for fourteen years, and his greatest love is basketball. The Special Olympics basketball team Ron coaches in San Francisco has had its official sanction questioned many times over the years. One reason is that the team (called the Wildcats) plays a game every Thursday night during the season with teams cobbled together by businesses, prisons, police departments, theater groups, and so on. The other is that Ron is rather more flexible in his role as referee than the official Special Olympics Summer Sports Rule Book would allow. When I joined a group of friends for a game against the Wildcats last year, everything from leapfrog to shooting backward took place, in an atmosphere of wild cheer. Of course, the Wildcats won. On Thursdays, they always do.

"They try not to admit that we exist," Ron told me recently about the Special Olympics. Ron has been told to play the Wildcats only against other official Special Olympics teams within the same ability level. "They're constantly trying to make people the same. It's an illusion -a stereotype that eliminates so much, ignores so much. The strength here is that we are different, and we like to be different. Our games are different -they're celebrations of joy and freedom."

At a recent California coaches' training, Ron was told to "select and train the best," a philosophy that dismayed him. The Special Olympics used to be small and "very democratic,” he says. "Now it's a top-down organization. It needs to be deregulated, like a corporation."

There are really two kinds of Special Olympics, he adds: the rigid rule-book games and the practical level of play, where a lot of what Ron calls "adjustments" can take place. Sometimes the tournaments are a lot of fun, sometimes unpleasantly rule oriented. When Ron takes the Wildcats (who number more than fifty now and range across all levels of skill) to a tournament, he chooses his players for two reasons only: that they've never been to a tournament before and that they're likely to enjoy it. "We were the first team to mix women and men in basketball, and it made a big hubbub. Now others do that. But at tournaments we usually lose."

Anyone with experience in Special Olympics admits that some of the athletes have a difficult time losing. As one participant who has since quit playing told me, “You throw your mitt on the ground, get mad, get angry, get over it.” Winning first place in an event is no guarantee of being picked to go to state or international tournaments; the sheer number of participants prevents this. But the selection committees also look at personality. Albert Alcalde told me, "You need an athlete who pays attention and stays easily in control. They get upset when they don't do well. That's why you have to encourage them all the time. They get easily discouraged and quit, and that's not what we're trying to do here."

Competition is not a by-product of Special Olympics but integral to it. It is encouraged. There are no published records of any Special Olympics event, but the organization has taken the trouble to compare the unpublished results with other athletic records. At the highest level of ability, Special Olympics athletes have the skill of regular Olympic athletes of the first part of the century and of the best high school athletes of today. Each athlete is encouraged to keep a record of his or her "personal bests,” to train and to move into harder events. Special Olympics also invites profoundly retarded people and people with multiple handicaps to join Motor Activities Training Programs so that they "might also participate and experience competition."

One Special Olympics volunteer described a skier to me as an example of the dedication the athletes sometimes display: "He was just obsessed about it. Coming in second was not what he was skiing for, and there were only two people in the race. And to him that was so incredibly fun! The winning was such a hit!" And still the unmistakable message is more about the limits of fun than the potential for it. Such a race was far from Ron Jones's game of joy; I wondered if a racer who longed for winning so could feel good in any place but first.

Karen Carrico is part of a "family of jocks," according to her mother, Kristin. Karen is a plump, giggling girl of sixteen who has been involved in Special Olympics for several years. All her family ski, and so does Karen, who has also played volleyball and basketball.

"It's one of those things you don't think will ever happen to you,” Kristin said, remembering Karen's infancy. I was sitting around the dining table with Kristin, Karen, and Karen's thirteen-year-old sister, Casey. "Of course, I went through the usual things with doctors-'Oh, she'll grow out of it.” “She's just slow.” Then they said, “Your daughter is retarded,” and I just about freaked. Then I went to good old Dr. Clark, and he said, ‘Wait a minute. My tennis game is retarded. It doesn't mean I can't play tennis. It means I can't play with Bjorn Borg."

I asked Kristin what Karen has taught her, and Karen laughed. "Patience!” replied Kristin. "But all teenagers do that. What have you taught me?” She looked at Karen and smiled. "That life is good."

Kristin is now on the area management team of Special Olympics. "Karen had been in it so much, and I thought it was time I gave a little back. Now it's anything for Special Olympics. It's instant gratification."

A few academics -writing in journals devoted to recreational therapy and physical education and so on- have criticized Special Olympics for labeling. The field of mental retardation is rife with talk of normalization, efforts to make the retarded conform to “normal” behavior. Normalization can be taken to extremes. One aspect of it is "age appropriateness," wherein retarded clients are sometimes prevented from engaging in behaviors considered childish. A profoundly retarded woman at a group home where I worked was not allowed to ride in her cherished red wagon; the entire population of a state institution not far from here was deprived of Santa Claus, all in the name of normality. Being publicly and openly declared retarded is thought to be a bad thing by certain academics, one of whom complains that Special Olympics is "conspicuously segregated” because almost all of the participants are retarded. I mentioned this to Kristin Carrico and her daughters while we sat, our hands close together on the table.

"There's a lot of talk now about segregation and mainstreaming,” said Kristin. "But there's also the issue of the right to congregate. We pick our friends among people who are like us, who participate in activities we do, whom we can share thoughts and feelings with. There's a fine line between making sure people have options and not taking that one very important option away."

Weight lifter John Hadley

When I began asking Special Olympics staff for the names of athletes I could interview, I was given as many chances as I could want to talk to people going to the international games. The list I developed was a list of stars -image makers who were young, attractive, independent, and highly skilled, and had strong family support. One staffer suggested a pair of brothers: "You'd never know they were Special Olympians. They're ultra-normal-looking guys.” In fact, it's not always readily apparent at a tournament or practice who is who. More than once Ron Jones has found himself short a player in a basketball tournament and put himself in. (No one has been the wiser, and his team still loses.) But I had been working in two group homes for severely retarded people for several months, and I knew from experience that not even the neighbors admitted the residents were there. It was as though they didn't exist -as though only a discreet inattention could forgive the rudeness of their odd appearance, their unexpected behaviors. I wanted to talk to athletes like them. At Kristin Carrico's suggestion, I called another group home, in a working-class neighborhood of Vancouver, Washington.

Eight retarded men live at Alvador House; seven of them participate in Special Olympics. All are over thirty and are therefore in the Master's Division. (In Special Olympics ten-year-olds do not compete with twelve-year-olds, but everyone over the age of thirty competes together.)

They were expecting me. I was shyly patted, waved to, greeted with nods and a few assertive '”put 'er there” handshakes. The shyest was forty-four-year-old Jerry Dierks, who only rolled his eyes and smiled and said "I dunno" to all my questions.

I sat beside fast-talking Cowboy Bill Greer, a forty-nine-year-old man with Roy Orbison glasses and a digital watch. Like three other men at Alvador, Cowboy Bill has Down syndrome. He also has three girlfriends, each named Jeannie. What sport did he prefer? I asked.

"Go fishing," he replied.

"Every time I go bowling I always hit seven hundred gutters!" added Ricky Romine. Ricky is forty-four, balding, with a red face. “I always hit gutters all the time." Cowboy Bill, who had moved a little closer, wheezed with laughter, hee-hee-hee in my ear.

"If you win, you be happy," added Ricky. "I proud."

"I'm proud myself," said Cowboy Bill.

David Omans is both the Alvador program manager and the coach of the Alvador Rebels. He felt obliged to mention that Cowboy Bill had a terrible temper for sports. "They all like the individual sports better than team sports. Rather than getting one ribbon for the entire team, they like to get their own. When we went to the area bowling tournament, Bill cussed like a trooper because he got seventh place. He wanted first. Seventh place is a pale blue ribbon, and Bill wanted the dark blue ribbon." Cowboy Bill laughed and slid a little closer.

"And Little John!” added David. Little John Cunningham is a forty-three-year-old man at the end of the table. He is skinny and deaf and has a bookish look; he signs and nods and smiles steadily. Little John bowls and puts the shot, continued David. "He averages around 130 in bowling, and his high game was 172. He shocked me at the last bowling tournament. I'd never seen him bowl so well. All these other people came around to watch, and, boy, did he know they were there."

Renée Michel, now a staff member at Alvador, used to drive the city bus in this neighborhood. "I used to take these very guys to work," she said. "For months ahead of time -and I mean months before- Special Olympics was all I heard about. Then they'd come on the bus with all their ribbons and trophies, and that's all I'd hear about for weeks afterward."

"They get to do things they've never gotten to do before," said David. "Just getting to go somewhere -getting to leave town, stay somewhere else, go to restaurants. " It is nothing more than wishful thinking to talk about mainstreaming men like the Alvador Rebels. There are few enough opportunities for recreation, and many barriers. "I'd like to see the reaction of people if we had these guys go to the Senior Olympics –how well they'd be accepted," said David. But they are too young. Too old, too young, and too much themselves to be welcome in many places. David Omans is not sure that even Special Olympics serves such people well. "The ones that do well get the most attention," he said. "It's just like normal kids. The ones that do well in Little League are the ones that stay in Little League, and the ones that don't are left by the wayside."

But victory is relative. I remembered a pair of athletes I saw at David Maeyaert's track practice. One was a plump, flat-faced woman with white hair; the other, a man of indeterminate age with a huge bald head, a thick beard, and a hump on his neck that forced him to face the ground. They were shuffling up the asphalt track toward the voices of two volunteers, who called and exhorted them on. At last, almost parallel, they reached the outstretched hands of the waiting women. "All right, Freddie!" one said. "Good job! You stayed inside your lines that time."

I heard hawking and coughing and the shuffling of feet-the beginning of boredom. I asked everyone to show me their medals; the room emptied for two minutes, and then I was surrounded.

Here is silent Mark Samples with his medals hanging around his big, soft chest. Here is Ron Puhn, the oldest at fifty-four, who has brought not only his medals but ribbons and photographs. Cowboy Bill is holding my hand, dangling ribbons in front of me. Here is Mike Miner, tinkling like a wind chime from the medals hung around his neck like so many bright bells. They grin in great and strutting pride as I examine each prize; they slap each others' backs, throw their arms around each others' waists and around me. It strikes me that these men have brought everything equally: used trophies, with the previous owner's name removed, and the participant's ribbons that every athlete receives, and bronze and silver and gold medallions. They don't distinguish one from the other. We do. We are the ones who have decided that only gold will do.