What Boston can learn from the Special Olympics

Boston Globe Magazine, May 28, 2015

By now we’re all familiar with the travails surrounding Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics: the outbursts at community meetings, the falling poll numbers, the parade of public relations mistakes. For a world-class city, the whole mess has left us looking pretty small-town.

We’re rightfully anxious about potential costs, not just to our public resources but also to our civic pride. The insecurity that seems to lie beneath this angst — the question of whether we can measure up after putting ourselves so far out there — feels very familiar to me. And I think it’s worth paying attention to.

I have learned about the value of taking risks on the playing field through my son, Nat, an athlete in the Special Olympics. We are all aware of the Special Olympics, from its origins with Eunice Kennedy Shriver to the endless fund-raising, so it’s easy to think we know everything there is to know about it. It’s easy to say “Aw, it’s so great for them that they have that! But come on, what’s it got to do with the real Olympics?”

Everything. Losing has grown unfamiliar to the collective heart of Boston, a city that has seen nine pro sports championship celebrations in less than a decade and a half. We’ve had so many victories that we’ve forgotten what failure makes possible.

Special Olympics athletes and families live with the fear of failure every day, so we understand better than most that taking a chance doesn’t have to be negative. There is no better feeling than excelling when no one believes you have it in you.

I only have to think of one of my son’s competitions to know how true this is. Nat will be swimming at the Massachusetts Summer Games, held in Boston and Cambridge next weekend, but this was a basketball game back in March.

It was the first away game of the season for the Fighting Panthers, and it looked bad from the start. The other team was so on. They had one player who seemed to score each time she took the ball up the court. Our defense, on the other hand, amounts to putting our arms up when it’s the other team’s turn to throw. Yes, our Fighting Panthers believe it’s all about taking turns.

We ought to be called the Kittens, my husband whispered to me. I gave him a look, but I had to laugh — maybe the first thing we Special Olympics parents learn to do in our games (and in our lives).

It’s common in Special Olympics for athletes not to know the subtleties of their sport. It’s also common for a basketball game to stop completely while a player tries again and again to get a basket. Both teams simply wait and watch. They know his struggles and they want him to succeed.

The parents feel it, too. Our kids may have floppy limbs, distended bodies. Or, like my autistic son, they may space out entirely. But then comes the moment when something shifts. And there it was. In the middle of that messy game, I heard someone say, “Nat!”

Nat heard it, too. He caught the ball and took an unlikely shot, maybe 15 feet away and from the side. And that ornery ball actually swished into the basket.

I jumped up, letting out the ugliest scream ever — squawky, harsh, way too loud. People were staring at me, but only because each one of them got it. Watching our kids score gives us every bit of the adrenaline jolt people get from seeing Michael Phelps touch the edge of the pool first. But unlike those other Olympians, our kids forget to run, our kids sometimes shoot at the wrong basket. Our kids wait for what feels like years to score at all.

Even so, the coach always puts Nat in and takes out a stronger player. Nat gets his shot, and once in a while he actually scores. And when that happens, there is nothing like it.

My child, who has had so much of life in the shadows, known so much of the agony of defeat, got to lead his team to the thrill of victory, even if just for a moment — even when they don’t end up winning it all.

Nat’s team lost that game pretty badly, but everyone went home ecstatic. They’d accomplished more than they’d ever thought possible. And that is real gold.