A few months before the Special Olympics was due to open, journalist Fiona Murdoch received a phone call asking her would she profile some of the participants and write a book about them to help the general public better understand how able disabled people are. This is the result.
160 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
Preface by Brian Crowley MEP
… Mary Davis and Team Ireland athlete, Lisa McNabb, share the feeling
The Ireland of Ireland had never seen anything quite like it. On 13 June 2003 the Special Olympics’ ‘Flame of Hope’, which had been lit nine days earlier in Athens, Greece, arrived at Bangor, Co. Down. From there it travelled the length and breadth of the island, with as many as one and a half million people turning out to watch it pass through their particular town or neighbourhood. On 16 June, 7,000 athletes, together with 2,000 coaches, 1,000 delegates and 11,000 family members, started pouring into Ireland’s airports from 166 countries around the globe to stay with host families throughout the country. It was the start of an event the likes of which the Irish people had never witnessed before.
Who can possibly forget the extraordinary occasion of the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Summer Games on 21 June 2003? Croke Park became a sea of colour with the 85,000-strong crowd waving
coloured flags, made by the prison community at nearby Mountjoy, while some of the most famous and widely admired people across the globe – rock musicians, politicians, and movie stars – took to the stage. Ireland’s own President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern rubbed shoulders with such figures as Nelson Mandela, Mohammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy-Shriver. The pitch itself was filled with excited athletes jumping around and dancing for sheer joy – a sight to behold in itself. Can there have been a dry eye anywhere in the country as athletes, celebrities and spectators joined together in singing the wonderfully moving Special Olympics athletes’ song, ‘May We Never Have to Say Goodbye’?
The ten days that followed were no less extraordinary for the athletes, coaches, families, friends and spectators – not to mention the 30,000 volunteers who helped ensure the smooth running of the event. Looking back on it all now, it hardly seems a reality to Mary Davis, chief executive officer of the 2003 Games, who, together with her 280 staff members, worked ‘ridiculous hours’ in the months coming up to the event. ‘For so long there was this frantic build-up to June 2003: says Mary. ‘We planned for all sorts of contingencies because there were so many things that could have gone wrong, but everything went to plan and all the things that might have gone wrong didn’t. It was amazing! And that’s why, when I look back, it seems like a dream.
‘All of us who worked on the organising committee feel a huge sense of achievement at completing the project. Nothing had ever been done like it before in Ireland, so there were no templates – nothing to go by. Yet, from the time we won the bid in 1999, we were able to develop the idea, raise the necessary funding, mobilise all the people we needed and get the country behind us in the most amazing way. And, now that it’s all over, I sometimes ask myself, “Did it really happen?'”
Mary first became involved in Special Olympics in 1979, when she was teaching physical education at St Michael’s House, Dublin, a day-care organisation for people with intellectual disabilities. Since then she has attended every single Special Olympics World Summer Games because,
finding it ‘a very valuable programme’, she became more and more involved – first, as a volunteer, and then in 1989 she was appointed director of Special Olympics Ireland. She held this post until 1999, when she was appointed CEO of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, a company set up for the sole purpose of organising the 2003 Games. ‘We quickly adopted the slogan “One team, one goal, one chance” because, no matter what each person was doing in the organisation, we were one team working towards one goal: she says. ‘And we only had one chance to do it, so we wanted to get it right:
Nobody could dispute that they did, indeed, ‘get it right’. During the Games Mary managed to get to all but two of the sporting venues. Her personal highlights included watching athletes from Kazakhstan taking part in the long jump at Santry, seeing some of the Chinese athletes doing gymnastics ‘with such amazing skill’, and presenting awards after an equestrian event at Kill, Co. Kildare. ‘And then, of course, the lighting of the flame at the opening ceremony was just amazing: she says. ‘I remember feeling, “We’ve done it! After all our toil and effort, the flame’s been lit and the Games have begun:’ I knew the running order for the evening and I knew what was going to happen. However, it’s one thing to visualise it and quite another to sit in the stadium while it’s all happening around you – this vision you have has become a reality. The atmosphere was incredible. I just thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” And it was amazing!’
Lisa McNabb from Lacken, Co. Wicklow, was one of the thousands of excited athletes jumping around for sheer joy during the opening ceremony. An enthusiastic member of Team Ireland, she thoroughly enjoyed the event. ‘It really was brilliant: says twenty-three-year-old Lisa. ‘There was a great atmosphere and all the people from around the world really enjoyed it. We were all up dancing and I was thrilled and happy and delighted to be there:
Lisa and her parents, Peter and R6isin, had also attended the I999 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which were held in North Carolina and in which Lisa competed in the softball throw and the 100 metre walk. They say, however, that the 2003 opening ceremony ‘far surpassed’ the 1999 event. ‘We were blown away by it; says R6isin. ‘We felt really proud to be Irish.’
Lisa won a gold medal in 1999 for the softball throw and she can still remember how ‘wonderful’ it was when crowds of supporters lined the streets of Blessington to cheer her on her return home. Since then she has progressed from softball to shot put and from the 100-metre walk to the 400-metre walk, which she competed in at the 2003 Games. She broke her own record in the 400-metre walk and she threw her personal best in the shot put. ‘Unfortunately I didn’t win any medals this year, but I enjoyed doing it anyway,’ she says. ‘It was good fun.’
Like any dedicated sportsperson, Lisa takes her training very seriously. Under the guidance of her father, whom she describes as her ‘personal trainer’, she does at least half an hour of power walking each day – on the road when the weather permits, otherwise indoors on the family’s treadmill. She also goes to the gym three times a week where she lifts weights and swims. ‘I enjoy the training, but it’s very hard work; she says.
If Dad is away on business, her brother, David, or her sister, Leonie, ensures that she does not miss out on her training. Their father was an Olympian hopeful in his youth – he ran for his club and county – and therefore had special reason to be thrilled when Lisa qualified for Special Olympics. ‘It was a great achievement altogether for her to get to the Games; he says.
Lisa also plays basketball on Saturdays with the Blackrock Fliers at Sion Hill, Dublin – a Special Olympics club that Colm and Sheila Leech set up ten years ago, with the support of the McNabbs – and which now has approximately eighty members. Peter and R6isin reckon Lisa has ‘benefited greatly’ not only from participating in sport, but also from the friends she has made through the club. She often stays overnight in her friends’ homes and they sometimes stay with her. Eleven members of the club took part in the 2003 Games and, when Lisa had completed her events, she enjoyed visiting other venues to watch her friends compete.
Her parents have always encouraged her to participate in a wide variety of activities and to mix with other young people. Her mum, Róisin, was a founder member of Integrated Education and enrolled Lisa in local schools – first, Lacken National School, and then Blessington Community School. ‘She was offered a place in a special-needs school in Dublin when she was four, but I didn’t want her going out of the area for her education: says Róisin. ‘It was a bit of a battle trying to open up the doors of mainstream schools, but we were determined. In fact, most of her friends at Blackrock Fliers also went to their local national schools.’
When she completed her secondary education Lisa attended KARE Foundation for Training and Development in Naas where she learned office skills, literacy, computer skills, advocacy and life skills. The course also included activities like horse riding, bowling, aerobics and swimming. She then completed a F As training course in office skills, which included one morning of work experience each week. In September 2003 she started work experience, under the supervision of KARE, in an office in Blessington; she hopes to secure employment in an office in the future.
Every Wednesday night Lisa attends a KARE-run disco in the Curragh where she meets up with her friends and her boyfriend, Conor. Lisa loves music and she cannot wait until the Blackrock Fliers’ tenth anniversary dance at the end of 2003; when she’s at home she loves nothing better than switching on the microphone in her bedroom and singing her heart out. When she is not busy training, socialising or singing, she catches up with her favourite television soaps – Eastenders, Coronation Street, Neighbours and Home and Away. Once or twice a year she stays for a weekend or a full week at KARE’s respite house in Newbridge, which she enjoys because she gets to go on trips to the shops and the cinema. ‘I love going to respite: she says.
Lisa is keen to keep up her training and she is optimistic that she will be competing at the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China. ‘I’m going to be there, doing the same again – the 400 metre walk and the shot put; she says. ‘I prefer the 400-metre walk, but I’ll do the shot put, too.’
Lisa knows that she must first take part in the area, regional and national games and that she must earn medals in these in order to qualify for the 2007 Games. Considering her commitment and determination, there is little doubt, however, that she will indeed be picking up plenty more medals to add to her collection (she keeps her medals in a box, which is overflowing and she says there are now too many to count). In October 2003 she started an Athletes Leadership Programme, with a view to becoming a Special Olympics basketball coach. The programme, which includes public speaking and volunteering as well as coaching skills, started with four days of training in Limerick. She was accompanied by her sister, Leonie, who acted as her mentor. Lisa looks forward to the day when she can coach basketball at the Blackrock Fliers. ‘I sometimes like telling other people what to do,’ she admits, ‘But I do want to be friendly, too!’
That the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games were an outstanding success is undisputed, but Mary Davis also had a wider goal for the event. ‘We wanted the Games to be very successful in terms of what they would leave behind; we believed that would be the true measure of their success; she says. ‘We hoped they would create more awareness of people with disabilities – not just here in Ireland, but around the world as well. We can be sure they have raised awareness because practically everyone on the island of Ireland is now aware of people with learning disabilities. They now know what the Special Olympics is all about and, more importantly, they know that these people are capable and able. This has happened through the various marketing and communications programmes, the schools’ enrichment programme and the way we involved so many people. So you can see some of the legacies very clearly already, although it will take a while to see others.
‘There will definitely be an improvement in the provision of facilities for people with learning disabilities in Ireland. As a result of the Games, we have already seen changes for the better – the government has now agreed to a rights-based legislation, which they wouldn’t agree to before. I’m not saying Special Olympics was the only catalyst for this, but it was certainly one of them. And then there’s the 50 million euro the government gave recently to services for people with disabilities. I think that’s come as a result of the Games as well because they highlighted the whole issue of disability in a way it has never been highlighted before. As a result of that, recognition has come and some funding, which is very positive. So the Games have left behind a huge number of legacies that will transfer into more awareness of people with disabilities and a more positive life for them.
The thing now is to keep the momentum going. Special Olympics has created awareness, but now organisations for people with disabilities have to make sure that the momentum continues. Special Olympics Ireland is a very strong programme – it’s one of the strongest outside the US and that’s one of the reasons we won the bid in the first place – but it can still go from strength to strength. There’s still an awful lot of development left to take place.’
Mary thoroughly enjoys the company of people with learning difficulties and that’s why she has spent so many years involved with Special Olympics. ‘One of the great things about being around the athletes is that they are so demonstrative in the way they express their sheer excitement and joy: she says. They infuse in you this sense of
excitement and appreciation because they have no inhibitions. I am very appreciative of that. Like we saw in the opening ceremony, people with learning difficulties will actually get up and show their joy, whereas a lot of us are too reserved to do that. That’s one of the great things I’ve found about being with them and that’s kept me around them for the number of years that I’ve been involved. The volunteers experienced how infectious the athletes’ enthusiasm is and they found the Games a great, great experience. They got an awful lot more out of the Games than they expected; it wasn’t just about giving up a few days’ work. Being around people with learning difficulties, you can’t help but get a sense of joy. They teach you a lot about treating people equally and they have definitely had influences on my own life.’
Mary would love to see people with intellectual disabilities more involved in society as a whole. ‘I think society would become much more enriched and enlivened and much more interesting if they actively participated in the community: she says. ‘If nothing else, that’s what the Games showed. They’re freer and much more open, as people, than we are and I think that’s a good thing. If more people were like that, I think we’d probably get on better as a society. They’re more accepting and they treat people as equals. I think that’s brilliant. If we were all like that, our society would be very different.
‘Going around the venues during the Games, it was astonishing to see what was going on – the way the athletes’ openness was rubbing off on the volunteers and the way everybody was teaming together brilliantly. We got hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls from volunteers thanking us for giving them the opportunity to help at the Games. So you can imagine if people with learning disabilities were more involved in their communities, then their communities would be much more enriched. I think that’s already happening, but it could definitely happen on a larger scale.’
The Irish people have been privileged to ‘Share the Feeling’, in the words of the theme for the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. And that is thanks to the phenomenal amount of work Mary Davis and her team put into making the event a tremendous success. ‘It’s now up to every group and organisation to ensure that people with learning difficulties continue to be more involved in society: says Mary. ‘The challenge is for everybody else to take the baton and put in the effort to make sure the feeling is sustained. After all, it’s there – just waiting to be tapped into.’