Special Olympics World Games 2015 — the biggest athletic event in Los Angeles since the 1984 Summer Olympics — provided the athletes with a sense of pride, lasting friendships and the inspiration of legendary Olympian Rafer Johnson ’59.
It’s a common misconception, the belief that what makes a Special Olympics athlete “special” is some intellectual disability. Even if that’s technically true, the men and women who graced the UCLA campus for nine glorious days in July and August manifested their real specialness by combining true competitive drive with an innate understanding that the opportunity to compete is, in itself, victory.
Special Olympics competitors are athletes, and Special Olympics is no give-everyone-a-trophy exhibition. These are athletes who, win or lose, exult in the experience regardless of the final score. Make no mistake, though; they came to Los Angeles for Special Olympics World Games 2015 to win gold medals.
It’s fitting that the John Wooden statue loomed over thousands of athletes, visitors and volunteers as they traversed Bruin Walk to watch gymnastics in the Wooden Center, volleyball in Pauley Pavilion, soccer on the intramural field and tennis in the L.A. Tennis Center, or headed off to grab a bite, purchase some swag or visit one of the many booths set up in Wilson Plaza. One could imagine Coach nodding in approval, his definition of success embodied by the Special Olympics spirit. It’s fitting as well that Jackie Robinson’s retired #42 adorned the various venues, because Robinson, who also valued victory but understood the importance of simply being allowed to compete, would have blessed the proceedings, too.
Another legendary Bruin, Rafer Johnson ’59, not only approves of the Games but has been integral to them since their inception. Johnson — whose accomplishments range from winning a gold medal in the decathlon in Rome at the 1960 Olympics to serving as UCLA’s student body president — has been with the Special Olympics movement from the beginning. His involvement dates back to the organization’s origins, when he traveled to Maryland in 1968 to meet with Eunice Kennedy Shriver and a few of her friends. Shriver’s goal — to involve people with developmental disabilities in sports and athletic competition — came to fruition in July 1968 with the first International Special Olympics Summer Games in Chicago. Inspired by Shriver, Johnson founded Special Olympics California in 1969.
“Mrs. Shriver didn’t want [Special Olympics] to be a social thing; she wanted [the athletes] to compete hard, and to know how hard it would be to get in a position to really compete hard,” Johnson says. “That was a whole new attitude.
“On the competitive side, brother, they do not mess around. I mean, they compete. That really surprised me,” Johnson says. “On the other hand, when that game is finished, they really are close to each other; almost every team will embrace each other, and it’s not just shaking hands. They truly embrace each other.” He recounts a race he saw in which an athlete ran ahead of the pack of runners, only to reverse course when a competitor fell so he could help his fellow athlete cross the finish line. “The most important thing is not ‘let me win this thing,’ but ‘let me help my friend.’”
Moments like this came in abundance across UCLA’s campus during the 2015 Games. Consider the lone tennis player from Malawi. Not only did the American squad practice with her, they presented her with USA gear and made her feel a part of their team. And 15-year-old Mia, not a competing athlete but a participant in the First Star UCLA Bruin Guardian Scholars Summer Academy for foster youth at UCLA, was excited to see the soccer team from Haiti (her father’s country) play. But what she saw brought tears: The team had no formal uniforms and, worse, lacking cleats, were slipping on the intramural field’s artificial surface. “I saw they were going to play,” Mia says, “and I started crying. I wanted to know if there was anything we could do.”
There was. Starting with funds she was saving for a philanthropic cause, Mia passed the hat among her fellow fans. Another fan independently had the same idea, and the two women joined forces. Two other fans offered to match whatever was raised. Before long, Mia and others were shopping for shorts, jerseys, shin guards and cleats for the Haitian team. “All they kept saying was ‘thank you,’” she says. “I just felt that everybody else had uniforms, and for them to walk on with no cleats. …” Her voice trails off before she adds: “I just wanted to do something for them.”
This marks the second time UCLA has hosted or co-hosted Special Olympics World Games; the first was in 1972. In the meantime, the Games have changed dramatically, perhaps most notably in the number of participants. There were 2,500 in ’72 and 7,000 this summer, with many athletes and coaches living “on the Hill” in UCLA student housing. One of them, Danielle Blakeney, an athlete from Kentucky, was competing in her second World Games.
“I love it here,” Blakeney says of her UCLA experience, moments before competing in the rhythmic ball final inside the Wooden Center, which consistently had the longest lines for entry of any venue on campus. Blakeney, a solo rhythmic gymnast for 11 years who competes with all the apparatus (clubs, hoop, ball, ribbon, rope), spends more than 20 hours a week in the gym, yet finds time to cheer and dance hip-hop. “Competing was awesome,” Blakeney says. “It was an honor to represent my country.”
A coach interrupts her interview after a few moments; it was time to put all those hours of training on the line. In front of a full house that included her mother and grandmother, Blakeney’s sunny disposition turned serious. Her graceful performance was not perfect — at one point she dropped the ball — but she recovered and finished with a series of impressive moves. It was good enough for gold. Overall, Blakeney earned five medals — three gold, one silver and one bronze, including top honors in the rhythmic all-around.
Tennis player Jeff Scott, from Brea, was part of the Southern California contingent of American Special Olympics athletes, who entered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last during the Opening Ceremonies. “We are the hosts, the Southern California team,” he says. “It was really neat going into the Coliseum [last] — that was really cool.” Scott considers himself a Bruin, his loyalties having been etched in stone when he met Coach Wooden, who signed a basketball for him. This year’s World Games was Scott’s fourth, and a successful one. “That was amazing, when I won the gold medal in doubles on my home surface,” he says. Scott partnered with Robert Williams in the gold medal match, defeating a tough Belgian squad. Scott added a pair of bronze medals in singles later in the week.
During the Games, Scott made his presence felt around UCLA’s Olympic Village, sharing his music. “I make the girls happy,” Scott says. “I make sure that they are having a good time. That’s my goal, to make them feel welcome.”
In a sense, making people feel welcome is what Special Olympics are about. Michigan volleyball coach Sheila Gafney adopted one of her players, who was alone and had nowhere else to go. Gafney was delighted to bring her team to UCLA. “I thought Pauley Pavilion was a beautiful stadium,” she says, adding that she was thrilled to coach in the arena where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Coach Wooden established their Bruin legacies. “Those are the names I associate with [UCLA]. To coach there was awesome — I was really excited.”
Gafney’s team struggled early. In one match against Japan, they appeared a bit overmatched, returning the ball over the net on the first hit while their opponent passed, set and spiked. But Gafney was sanguine, noting that her team played different sports in different seasons, while many of their opponents specialized in volleyball year-round. A trip across town to the convention center on a day off lifted the team’s spirits, and they bounced back to take the gold medal match, defeating Uruguay two games to one.
Rafer Johnson believes there were more spectators at this year’s Special Olympics than ever before. “We have had some great games around the world, but this one, by most measurements, was the best. I don’t think anybody was let down.”
What stood out for him was the people who made the Games possible. “I love the way the volunteers were 100% involved in the success of the game,” he says. “There were a couple of wrinkles along the way, but they were taken care of in short order.” He prefers to recall the small, life-changing moments that took place, some off the field of play. “There was one athlete who couldn’t hear, or thought he couldn’t,” Johnson says. “And [the medical team from the UCLA Health Special Olympics Polyclinic] took wax out of his ear, and he could hear and wouldn’t stop talking. He was hearing words for the first time.”
For Johnson, the real impact of Special Olympics is the dreams that lead athletes to their calling. He points out that there have always been children who dream of becoming a fireman or even an Olympian. “But the people with intellectual disabilities, they didn’t want to be anything.”
Now, he says, there is a place where “people are embracing you and congratulating you for something you just did. This is a different life, a new life and one that they like. They bring with them a real different feeling about what competition ought to be.”