During my college years I hung around the athletic facilities, a lot. No, it wasn't because I hoped to see a half-naked jock wander out of the men's locker room, nor did I exude joy over showering with my soccer buddies. Yeah, there's no secrets in a women's locker room.
The truth is...I'm a nut...a sports nut. I had a huge competitive drive in high school and it bubbled over into my adult life. Years after high school graduation, when I grew tired of battling my children for the last bit of chocolate and thumb-wrestling elderly women for reduced-for-quick-sale pot roasts at the grocery store, I began pursuing a kinesiology degree at a local university. My ten-year plan was simple--become a coach, then an athletic trainer. One of the classes the head of the kinesiology department insisted I pursue was "Athletics for the Special Needs Population."
At the time, I tried to argue. "This class will be pointless. I wanna coach real athletes, and I'll never implement anything I learn."
Coach "K" smiled patiently and drew in a deep breath. It was obvious he was used to dealing with snarky twenty-something year olds. "What, you don't wanna work with lions?" The aging professor paused and chuckled at my confused expression. "You'll be fortunate if you ever get the chance to work with a special needs athlete. You see, they already have the world telling them what they can't do, and it's up to them to prove everyone wrong. And they will, time and time again. That's why they have a heart of a lion. Besides," he continued, "the class will teach you patience--something you need." He assured that I'd, at some point, use the skills I learned, and grudgingly I signed up for the course.
It was almost as if Coach "K" could predict the future. Just a few years later, my younger son was diagnosed with autism. When he was six years-old we signed him up for Special Olympics soccer, and I was over-the-moon excited. I'd lettered in cross-country running in high school, and soccer was were I excelled in college. No doubt my boy would wow everyone with his athletic prowess.
The first couple of years, the only thing Joseph wowed everyone with was his intense love of chicken and temper tantrums. His coaches were wonderful, but my son wasn't getting the concept until we began practicing at home. I used the knowledge I acquired in that kinesiology class so long ago: breaking down instructions into simple one-step commands, modifying instructions, demonstrating technique, repetition of one skill at a time (till both Joseph and I were sick of it), and patience.
This past year Joseph was finally eligible to compete in the state Olympic Games. I was amazed when he insisted on practicing every day after school in the front yard of our home. It was if he realized some people's preconceived notion of the special needs athlete, and of him, and he was intent on proving them wrong. Determination filled his eyes as he focused on the soccer skills he'd be performing at the upcoming event. "Again please." he demanded each time his kick missed its mark. And he practiced indoors on rainy days by kicking a paper wad around the house.
Months past, and finally the Games arrived. My heart pounded as we parents, athletes, and their coaches walked through the tunnel and were announced respectively. Tears clouded my vision and time froze when I saw the immense stands filled with hundreds of fans, all screaming and cheering. Lines of people stood along both sides of our path, all reaching out to congratulate our kids. They were seeing the accomplished special needs athletes, but for me, I was walking with lions.
Check out my fun-walk link!