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Special Olympics Israel makes a Splash

March 18, 2007
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“Special Olympics is not a household name in Israel as it is in the US,” explained Vicki Oren, mother of 23-year-old Mati, winner of four gold medals. “We need to work very hard to get noticed and accepted. By sending a team of Special Olympics swimmers to this world-class event, we are making a bold statement by putting our name out there, and hopefully it will encourage other families to learn of us.”

The icy waters of San Francisco Bay were a bit different from the waters of the Sea of Galilee where the Israeli team did much of their training, but at least there were no Katushya rockets flying over! In the summer of 2006, during the war with Hizbullah, when pools were drained and the Sea of Galilee was off limits, Mati hopped onto a bus and traveled 125 miles (200 kilometers) away from his home in order to swim. His efforts were rewarded, as he came in first of the 13 Special Olympics swimmers who entered and 145 out of 800. In 2003, Mati set a Special Olympics record in the 400-meter individual medley.

Changing Attitudes
“People think we're cripples. They think we all have Down syndrome,” said Yuval Hirsh, one of the Israeli athletes. “They don't think people like me can participate and work so hard.” Special Olympics is trying to change that attitude.

Special Olympics is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive, and respected members of society through sports training and competition. In 2006, more than 2.25 million athletes from 150 countries participated in nearly 25,000 competitions around the world.

Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Board of Special Olympics, speaks most enthusiastically about it: “Our athletes and the growth they've inspired have taught us lessons and changed us in ways we are still coming to understand. We know with new resolve that our athletes can be an inspiration in any country, no matter how divided; can mobilize any community, no matter how besieged; can prompt a rethink in any fan, no matter how jaded; can inspire generosity in any supporter, no matter how distracted.”

Ud Bar-Peled, chairman of Special Olympics Israel, added, “Special Olympics is not a program. It is a way of life.” It is no longer just an event, but a movement that challenges the world to think, feel, and act differently about everything. One doesn't “go” to Special Olympics; one is “a part of” Special Olympics. “Witnessing such moments of triumph, no one can doubt that fear can be overcome, that acceptance can be our common ground, that the human spirit can soar,” remarks Shriver.

Special Olympics' goal is to “reach every person with an intellectual disability who is looking for a chance.” It is about more than sports competition; it is about social change, teaching the world about the urgency of overcoming discrimination. The movement provides vital support for the families of those with intellectual disabilities and gives young people experiences that reinforce universal equality.

We're excited that Special Olympics Israel is helping to make a difference, not just in Israel, but internationally.

By Charleeda Sprinkle

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