Sunday, April 25, 2004

Decided against taking part in the great Women's march in San Francisco today.

Dorian seems worn out from participation in yesterday's Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Cal. She played in just two games (losing both). That involved a very long day of crowd activities. That's always stressful for her. Her day started at 6:30 yesterday morning -- she went full steam all day. I picked up a teary mess of an athlete at 5:15 in the evening. Her team had placed fourth and had therefore not received a medal. Having been participating from childhood in these games -- when there was a medal for everybody simply for participating -- to a time when the awarding is governed by whether or not one wins, she just isn't prepared. We "normal" folks just don't get it, do we?

Puts me in mind of our very Special Olympics when she was a resident at The Cedars in Marin County. What a time that was for us both. The participants were about equally divided between the handicapped (both mental and physical) and volunteers and supporters (mostly teens wearing special tee shirts) who stood at the starting and finishing lines urging the athletes on. It was a completely loving and supportive environment.

Saw a miracle that day that forever colored my attitudes about competitive sports, but before I tell you about that -- let me tell you about one little girl -- maybe ten or eleven. She looked tired and teary. I walked over and asked a volunteer if I could help. The answer was a kindly but firm, "no, thank you." She then explained to me that the child had somehow run and won first place in the wrong race only a short time before -- she was not the right age -- and therefore her win could not be counted. The staff was asking that she run again, this time with the proper age group. This time, being tired from the first run, she could not possibly win. The rule book won out over common sense. Were I in the position of having a voice, I would have simply had her time transferred to the proper race. These athletes would never have known the difference, and it was no one else's business, after all.

The miracle I speak of was an example of heroism worthy of mention in the history book of sports.

There was a 50-Yard Dash about to be run. I was sitting in the stands at the high school. In the row above me sat Trevor Thomas of KQED-TV, the local PBS channel. He had a camera crew on the field and was connected to them by remote. I assumed (later) that he'd surely seen what I'd witnessed. It was that extraordinary, to me.

There were three young teen volunteers below at the starting line with three athletes. There was a little girl about ten or eleven -- tall and rangy for her age, another slightly rounded little girl about the same age -- short and stocky and a bit lumbersome in her movements. The third child was a little boy of maybe 7-8. All three were obviously mentally-retarded with Downs syndrome clearly present in the little boy. The rest is hard to describe since it all happened almost simultaneously:
The starting gun sounds!
The three young volunteers send their charges off with a loving shove and shouts of "Go!"
The three children dash off -- each at a different pace.
The tallest little girl is far ahead of the others -- quite obviously the winner, but...
Little boy falls and screams out, less in pain than in frustration ...
He's pounding the ground with his little fists!
Tall little girl stops still in her tracks as she hears his cry, inches from the tape ...
There is a loud gasp in the stands as we "normal" people saw her -- only a few feet from victory --
stop dead!
She turns to run back ...
picks up the little boy and brushes him off...
totally ignoring the roar of the crowd ...
She'd done the human thing.
She'd answered a human cry of pain.
In the stands there was confusion and the buzz of conversation ... as we adjusted.
She'd lost.

I drove home to Walnut Creek feeling that I'd witnessed something terribly important. I felt elated. Upon reaching the house I immediately called everyone I could reach to tell them to watch "NewsRoom" that night to see my "miracle." I just knew that Trevor Thomas had seen the same event and that his cameramen on the field surely must have picked it up. But he hadn't. It was missing from the news that night. There was coverage of the games, but that coverage consisted of children standing on a set of graduated boxes receiving medals from grownup volunteers. The Special Olympics was quite new and newsworthy. They were the local dignitaries awarding the "winners" with ribbons -- for 1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place. Everyone was a winner, except that lovely little girl who'd gone back to pick up a fallen competitor. She was missing.

Wonder to this day how often we award those ribbons for the wrong things?

The next year, with this experience under my belt, I attended the Special Olympics Track & Field Statewide games at Cal. There were two volunteer coaches sitting nearby in the stands. I listened as they chatted about the special challenges of working with this population. At the time we were watching the lineup for the 100-Yard Dash below. "You have to teach them to watch the lines on their lane when they're running. If they catch sight of the runners on either side, they begin to run alongside." Here it was again. It is simply unnatural to compete below a certain intellectual level, I suppose. Have no idea if this is supported by the research, but I would guess that it might well be. For this population, running alongside was sufficient reason to participate. Originally, ribbons were awarded to everyone simply for pariticipating. This is apparently no longer true -- as we elevate the Special Olympics Game competitors to more "normal" status.

Years later, while watching the San Francisco Bay to Breakers marathon on the tube, I found myself laughing at all those "normal" folks having the time of their lives "running alongside," and in weird and wonderful costumes at that! How lovely it was to see those thousands of runners in Boston and in New York doing the same thing every spring.

Met the mother of that little boy of the Marin track meet some years later. She was in an audience when I was singing. I was telling the story (as I often did between songs) about that life-changing event when I heard someone laugh. She identified herself to me when the concert was over. She, too, had the same reaction that I'd had and also felt very much alone until now. She, too, had watched Trevor Thomas on NewsRoom that evening -- believing that he'd witnessed what she'd seen. Though it was years after the fact, we were both close to tears as we embraced as old friends ... so grateful to be confirmed in this shared miracle. It was so wonderful to discover that someone else had noticed. We were not alone.

Dorian is quieter today. She talks basketball talk these days and understands free throws and penalties and double-dribbling and fouls and interference -- and has been moved over many years to some familiarity with the rules of the game. In taking on the values of the field, the arena, the court, I wonder what she's given up? And, what we've all given up on the way to becoming more "normally" competitive"?