By Ellen Seidman, REDBOOK
Before I had a kid with disabilities, I thought the Special Olympics was a kindly way to give people with disabilities a chance to have fun. I never realized that serious athletes participated-or how game-changing sports could be-until I had a child with cerebral palsy.
My son Max is 8. He walks well; using his hands and talking are a challenge. He plays baseball on a team for kids with special needs, and it's been a home run for his confidence. Because he's a weenie about big crowds, though, we haven't yet participated in any Special Olympic events. Then I was asked by P&G, a sponsor of The Special Olympics for more than 30 years, to cover the Summer Games, taking place in Athens June 25 through July 4. It's the biggest sporting event in the world for 2011. There are 317 Team USA athletes and 7,000 in total participating in 22 sports-everything from beach volleyball to tennis.
I recently got the chance to interview rhythmic gymnast Danielle Blakeney, 20, and her mom Colleen of Erlanger, Kentucky. What they said is going to totally change how you view people with special needs.
Congratulations on being part of the U.S. team, Danielle. What are you most psyched about?
"I'm excited to see another country and make new friends. I got a book and DVD on how to speak Greek and I think I say 'thank you' and 'please' and 'hello' OK. If not, I have two things going for me: First, I'm American and second, I have Downs, and they won't know what I'm saying anyway!"
I heard you hurt your back a few days before you were set to leave. Were you freaked about the possibility of not being able to make the trip?
"The doctor didn't want me to go. I said, 'It's a good thing I have all of my forms signed. See you when I get back.'"
You've won close to 300 medals. Where do you keep them all?
"Mom built me some wooden cases with velvet that I have in my room, and Dad also made a shadow box when I came home with five National medals. He promised me a special shadow box if I bring home Olympic medals!"
How have your parents helped you succeed?
"Mom goes everywhere with me and helps coach me. She got me mats to work on at home. My younger sister, Samantha, goes to as much as she can when she can take off from work. She'll be in Greece too."
What do you like to do for fun?
"Swimming, being in a gym with friends and learning new skills, and watching TV when I'm stuck at home!"
What do you think about Lauren Potter, the actress with Down syndrome on Glee?
"I'd like to see Becky be more part of the storyline, but I like that she's a cheerleader and that she went to prom with a typical high school student."
What do you most want people to know about the athletes in the Special Olympics?
"That we train just as hard as anyone else. And if people watch us, maybe they would want us to be around more or let us do more things with them-we are just as good."
Bravo! And good luck at the Olympics. OK, over to your mom. Colleen, when did Danielle first get into sports?
"She started toddler tumbling at 18 months old. She got into the Special Olympics at age 8 doing track and field and cheerleading. When she was 11, we were at some game and there was a young girl in a sparkly outfit and Danielle said 'I want to do what she's doing!' Soon, we were involved in rhythmic gymnastics."
Is Danielle still a clothes horse?
"Whether her clothes match or not, as long as something sparkles, she's dressed! Her Grandma brought her a rhinestone setter, and she made equipment bags for her gymnastics team. Each one has more than 200 rhinestones. Of course, she and her sister, Samantha, added rhinestones to all of her competition outfits. Oh, and Samantha gave her a good-luck present: a sports bra with 'Team USA' in rhinestones."
What's Danielle like when she's doing gymnastics?
"When Danielle is competing she is like 10 feet tall and does not know she is not 'typical.'"
How have you instilled confidence in her?
"The same as you would in any child: We have always told her she can be or do anything she sets her mind to. And we have always been there to pick up the pieces when she does not achieve what she's tried for. I am in awe of her."
How have other kids treated her over the years?
"Mostly well, but sometimes when she was little they would call her 'retarded' or bump into her in the halls. I'd know because she would come home, go to her room, and yell at her favorite doll, Sissy. Then she'd put on her headphones and listen to music. I'd go in and talk with her about it and try to make things better. That doll still exists and if Danielle's had a stressful practice, I'll find Sissy sitting on the living room couch because Danielle's watched TV with her."
How does she deal now if anyone bothers her?
"One of my brothers has taught her that if someone is staring at her in a restaurant to say, 'Yes, I have Downs, but you're ignorant.' They both think that's hysterical."
Have there been times when you've been especially moved watching Danielle compete?
"Last year at Nationals, the girl going before Danielle had messed up and was crying, and Danielle helped her off the floor. That meant more to me than watching her compete. She knew it wasn't just about the medal, but about the other girls out there, too. It's just as good to have someone standing beside you on a bad day as cheering you on a good day."
Danielle was recently in the Kentucky Summer Olympic games. How did that go?
"Overall, great, except there was a little hitch lighting the cauldron. She carried the torch a quarter of a mile, said it was heavier than heck, then toted it up a ladder. It wouldn't light! She kept trying and trying. Some military guys thought she wasn't tall enough. Well, turned out it was never filled with fuel!"
What are Danielle's plans for the future?
"Maybe something with childcare. She reads at story hour at the daycare up the street, and also helps with arts and crafts. She's great with kids."
What's going to be most nerve-wracking about watching her compete?
"The split leap, known as the grand jeté. It is not a graceful moment for her. She practices them through the house and you'll hear pictures rattling and her dad will say, 'You're not leaping through the halls again, are you? What are you doing?' and she'll say 'Nothing...but I love you!'""
What would you like other parents to know about kids and young adults with special needs?
"I think parents should encourage their kids to get involved in a sport with at least one special needs child. They can learn a lot from each other-things that will last them their entire lives."
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