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Special Olympics: more than just a sport.

for the past nine years I have been able to share the sports world I love so much with my son Dallas, who is now 17. It would not be unusual for a father and his son to share in sports activities, but Dallas is mentally retarded and, for a long period of time, I really didn't think he could be a vital part of my world in sports.

In 1980, I was a member of the United States Olympic Track and Field team coaching staff and enjoyed the opportunity to coach world-class athletes and top-flight collegians in the sport that had meant so much to me and my family. During those early years when Dallas was just five, six and seven, I really didn't have much hope for him to be that son that every father hopes for, that superstar winning a conference championship and leading his team to a state title. In fact, I could not even imagine Dallas being involved with sports because he was so developmentally delayed in all aspects of his life. Minimal communication skills, poor physical coordination, tunnel vision and mental retardation were all parts of Dallas' life that provided me with those negative visions of a rather helpless individual, my son.

That all changed in 1982 when my family and I attended our first Special Olympics competition. Dallas participated in the tennis ball throw and the 50-meter dash, competing with hundreds of other athletes of all ages with mental retardation.

His first event was the tennis ball throw--his weak, spastic throw went less than 10 feet. Still, he earned a third-place ribbon, and I thought to myself, "How nice. He had a good time being on a playing field for the first time competing with others in a sports contest." But to be honest, it really didn't mean much to me. "It was just something to do at the Special Olympics," is what crossed my mind.

About an hour later, Dallas was to compete in the 50-meter dash. I was looking forward to that event because it was on the track and he could compete head-to-head with other eight-year-olds in a sprinting event that could showcase his talent. The problem was I knew when Dallas stepped to the line, I couldn't expect too much. I had spent some time training him, but he had such a difficult time trying to learn all of the things that I thought he should know about sprinting. I don't know what I was thinking of in those practice sessions, but it certainly wasn't helping Dallas take one step at a time at his own pace; I wanted to hurry his development so he could run a race and win.

Yes, I was certainly going in the wrong direction with my son, but my background as a professional coach was always to win, to be the champion, and I really let that philosophy cloud my training of Dallas.

The gun went off, and Dallas started to run. He tried as best he could to keep up with the other athletes. His arms were pumping as he was trying to sprint but they weren't in rhythm, and that caused him problems. His legs seemed to be flying from one direction to another. He finished in fourth place, not good by many standards, not a champion, not a winner, just fourth place.

A few minutes later, he was on the Special Olympics award stand, receiving his fourth-place ribbon from Jim Hines, a former Olympic champion in the 100-meters.

As soon as Dallas had his ribbon, I felt tears in my eyes and a feeling of pride and accomplishment for my son that I had waited for years to feel. I had given up on ever having this feeling, but now, here was my son on a victory stand, which meant more to me than any of the champions that I have ever worked with. This fourth-place champion changed my whole attitude about sports in the 22 seconds it took him to struggle, in his own way, down that 50-meter course. Dallas showed me that day in Oakland, Calif., in front of hundreds of families with children in Special Olympics, that he--we--do have a place in the sports world.

One year later, I left my job at the university where I had coached for 14 years and moved to Washington, D.C. to become Director of Athletics for Special Olympics International.

That 50-meter dash by Dallas had a dramatic impact on my entire family and continues to influence our lives. My daughter Kelly has been a volunteer for Special Olympics for eight years and is now majoring in physical education at Cal State -- Stanislaus, with plans to become a special education teacher. My wife Carolyn has been the family's strength as she works full-time, takes care of Dallas by herself when I travel extensively and is a volunteer and certified coach for Special Olympics.

And Dallas. Well, he has won numerous local Special Olympics ribbons and medals and even some Virginia state championships. It's great to see him win, but I think it's more important to see him trying to do his very best in his various sports competitions and accomplish and master the skills that his coaches have taught him. He has become my best teacher because I learn so much from him as he grows up. He's a great champion, my champion.

Jim Santos of Washington, D.C. is the Director of Family Programs for Special Olympics International, serving more than 100 countries worldwide.
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Author:Santos, Jim
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Words:925
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