A Golden Moment With Nat

Washington Post, June 24, 2006

In our house, June is the month for the Special Olympics Summer Games, where my oldest son, Nat, competes in several swimming events. I never thought this would be the case all those years ago when I emerged from childbirth and imagined our golden-haired son as a brilliant young man or charismatic athlete, perhaps one day attending an Ivy League school.

Then autism swept into our lives, giving a name to the vague dread I carried around from Nat’s first days of life and providing an explanation for so many things that did not go the way I’d expected. It took me a long time to get over it, to learn to live — happily — with the fact of an autistic son, and to find what he liked to do and what he was good at.

A lot of people think of the Special Olympics as a “feel-good” thing and a big dumbing-down of athletics. They are only half right. The Summer Games do make me feel good, but that’s because I get to watch my son test his mettle against other boys just like him. When I climb the bleachers that surround the big pool before a race, the sea of faces before me is made up of athletes waiting nervously for their turn, some of them with limbs they can’t control, some with the unmistakable features of Down syndrome, some flapping or talking to themselves like Nat. I feel my heart beat hard with excitement as I see so many families just like ours; the parents, sitting proudly with their quirky kids, completely at ease with whatever disability has shaped their lives, thinking only what I’m thinking: “Will he do it this time?”

For some, “doing it” means getting a medal. For others, it means simply completing the race, or even just staying afloat in the water. For Nat it means going fast and not spacing out. If Nat goes as fast as he’s capable of going, he’s capable of winning the gold.

Contrary to the prevailing ignorance, not everyone wins at the Special Olympics. The judges take their role very seriously; they watch for form, and for errors — like the time Nat stopped during his backstroke and walked the rest of the way. Last year his problem was grabbing the rope, also during the backstroke.

The staff organizes heats, placing people with similar abilities together so that the competition is intense. Nat is a tall, thin boy of 16, and the boys he swims next to are, for the most part, strapping young men, very much aware of what they are doing.

When that horn sounds and the kids jump in, the people in the stands start to yell themselves hoarse. I find myself watching the swimmers who are faster than Nat and hating them — and then loving them. You get to know the other families and their kids’ strengths. Some teams, like the one from a wealthy neighboring town with great facilities, are legendary for their strong swimmers. So it’s especially thrilling when the swimmers from a poor urban area beat the pants off them, sometimes literally — every now and then a swimmer forgets to tie his suit properly.

The best part of the day is when the races are over and the athletes stand around with towels thrown across their shoulders, hair wet and lips blue, waiting to hear if their name is called. It never fails that the first kid, the bronze medalist, heads straight for the central platform, the highest one — the one meant for the gold medalist. They all recognize the best spot, and they all want it. But this is not the place for handouts, and not everyone gets a medal.

This year, when Nat began his backstroke race, we shouted as loud as we could, “No rope! No rope!” Of course he couldn’t hear us, with his ears in the water. But he didn’t grab the rope, and he swam the whole way. We didn’t know how well he’d done until the moment when we heard his name echoing across the room, the announcer asking him to come take his place on the silver medalist platform. He walked tall and proud, accepting our applause, like the charismatic athlete he was. I don’t know whose grin was wider, his or mine. It gave new meaning to an old expression: Good as gold.