From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

The Special Olympics

A couple of years ago, when I was going to college, I volunteered to be a finish-line “hugger” at the Kentucky Special Olympics held in Richmond. Because I was studying to become a special-education teacher, I was very interested in the games and the people and wanted to be more involved.

The day of the event dawned dreary, wet and gray. I arrived early and watched as the participants arrived with their families, friends and school groups. Even though it started to rain and a cold wind blew, I didn’t hear a single person complain. In fact, most of the participants were so excited that they didn’t seem to notice the weather at all.

When the sky cleared up a bit, the first games began.My job was to stand at the end of a lane on the track and hug the person in that lane when he or she crossed the finish line. It seemed to me that many of the participants completed their races just so they could get that “finish” hug. As the arms of the hugger closed around them, their faces lit up with pure joy, whether they came in first or dead last.

While we huggers stood around, waiting for one race to end and the next to begin, we talked. I was told that most of the participants had been training for the races all year. I was impressed. A dedicated athlete, I had been captain of my high school soccer team for two years, but even I hadn’t trained year-round.

I also noticed that, unlike many athletes today, the Special Olympic participants weren’t there just to win. They didn’t play dirty or talk negatively about the people they were racing against. In fact, they hugged and wished each other luck before they started, and hugged again when it was over, whether they had won or not. I even saw one boy offer his gold medal to the man next to him. The boy explained that even people who come in last place are winners, and after all, the man had worked just as hard as he had.

What I remember most vividly from that day was the long-distance race. It was a long race by any standards: twelve laps around the track. There were only four participants, three boys and one girl. They were only a couple of laps into the race when the rain started up again. Standing in the rain, I began to feel miserable. My feet hurt. I was soaking wet. I was hungry. I was cold when the rain and wind came and hot when the sun came out. I thought irritably: This race is lasting entirely too long. Even though the three boys were nearly finished, the girl was at least four laps behind. I wondered why she kept going when there was obviously no way she could win.

Finally, the three boys finished and the girl was running alone. The boys didn’t go up for their award right away, but waited by the track, cheering the girl on each time she went by. She is so far behind, I thought. Why doesn’t she just quit?

She was the runner in my lane, and each time she ran by me, I almost wished that she would just stop for her hug. She was wet and in pain and obviously exhausted. As she completed each lap, her face was a little redder and she was holding her side just a little bit more. But she didn’t quit.

By the time she finished the race, she was barely running. The audience went wild when she crossed the line. She fell into my arms and started crying. I thought to myself that she was crying because she was so wet and cold, or she hurt so badly, or she was embarrassed for taking so long. Then I heard her mumbling something into my shoulder. She pulled away, folded her hands and began to pray. “Thank you, dear God, for giving me the strength to finish the race today. Thank you for letting the boys win. Thank you for all of these nice people.” She hugged me again and then made her way to the awards table.

I stood motionless, astonished and awed. I couldn’t believe what I just heard. Tears coursed down my face as I watched her joyfully accept her award for fourth place.

At that moment, I understood why these Olympics were “special.”

Denaé Adams

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