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How the Special Olympics World Winter Games Will Bring a 'Heartbeat for the World'

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In just a few weeks, more than 2,600 athletes will compete at the at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games. Among them, our national team, Special Olympics USA, will send a 210-member delegation to represent the United States from March 14-25 in Graz, Ramsau, Schladming, and Styria, Austria.

Among them is my friend and fellow Special Olympics athlete Jamiah Shepard of South Holland. Jamiah will compete in snowshoeing on Special Olympics USA. Jamiah was diagnosed with an intellectual disability at an early age and does not let any of her challenges get in the way of her accomplishments, including receiving a Sportsmanship award at Thornwood High School, being a three-time state basketball champion, and competing in the pentathlon for the first time at Illinois’ 2016 Summer Games. In all, Jamiah has competed in pentathlon, track and field, basketball, snowshoe, gymnastics, cheerleading and bocce. Jamiah’s favorite part of competing in Special Olympics is “Getting a gold and having good competition against somebody.”

Local Special Olympics staff had their eyes on Jamiah at a recent state Winter Games held in Galena. A year ago, they selected Jamiah to run for Special Olympics USA at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.

Jamiah is joined by 149 other athletes from Special Olympics USA. Our national delegation includes traditional Special Olympics athletes and also Special Olympics Unified Sports teams, where people with and without intellectual disabilities train and compete together as teammates.

Biannually, athletes go beyond geographic boundaries, nationality, gender, age, culture, religion, and political philosophy to come together for the flagship event of the Special Olympics movement: the Special Olympics World Games. This event brings a much-needed message of equality, tolerance and acceptance to communities around the globe. About 15 years ago, when I began competing in Special Olympics, my mom Linda Smrokowski, 65, attended her first Special Olympics event. It was at this moment that she perfectly stated the effect of the Special Olympics movement.

“If the whole world were like Special Olympics, there would be no wars,” said my mom. “The movement brings out the best in everybody.”

According to the press release from Special Olympics USA, this is expected to be the largest Special Olympics World Winter Games in history. Athletes from 106 nations will be competing in 9 Olympic-type sports, including floor hockey, stick shooting, figure skating, speed skating, alpine skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.

ESPN, the global television network and digital media organization, is to produce extensive coverage for sport fans and supporters of the Special Olympics movement around the globe. This coverage is said to be the first-ever coverage for a World Winter Games event. As the official broadcaster of Special Olympics, the television coverage can be seen on ESPN’s television networks in the U.S. and streamed through WatchESPN and on the ESPN App.

While at the training camp in Vermont for Special Olympics USA, ESPN had their eyes on the amazing athletes who were preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “They [ESPN] were stalking me for Vermont,” said Jamiah. ESPN reporters were interviewing a few of the athletes who will be featured as part of the comprehensive coverage in Austria. Jamiah is not sure if she will be featured on ESPN, as the sports media network will select the featured athletes once they arrive in Austria on March 12.

There are only a couple hundred Special Olympics athletes, like Jamiah, who have the opportunity to represent the United States at a Special Olympics World Winter Games. This is a unique honor to both represent our country with one’s athletic abilities and to demonstrate one’s joy to the world. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these athletes to demonstrate their athletic abilities, competing at the highest level on the world stage, and to have life and cultural experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” said Chris Hahn, Head of Delegation for Special Olympics USA, in a press release statement. “I encourage every American to cheer on these inspiring athletes, to share in their triumphs and to take pride in knowing that they will represent our country with excellence and honor.”

Jamiah is most looking forward to competing against other people from the 106 countries. Admitting the excitement of competing at the World Games, she is also a little bit scared of this opportunity. “I’m also doing a 400 but I’m kinda scared about doing the 400 because it’s a longer event and I’m not used to doing a 400,” said Jamiah. “But I’m going to try and do it.” Jamiah added that she likes to try new things.

Americans watching the upcoming Special Olympics 2017 World Winter Games at home can be part of a terrific fan club mission. According to online literature from Special Olympics World Winter Games Austria 2017, “Mission 3000” has launched to become the great fan club mission of all time. This fan club mission gives you an opportunity to support an athlete before and during the World Games. Are you part of a class of students, youth group, music club, or simply just have a group of friends? Then you can sign up to become a “Fan Club.” Once you sign up, you will get in touch with an athlete and write letters, record video messages, send pictures and introduce the athlete to the culture and tradition of your country.

Just ahead of the 2017 World Winter Games, Coca-Cola has released a new song. The unified song, “Can You Feel It,” was written and performed by Austrian singer Rose May Alaba. Alaba is joined by musicians with intellectual disabilities. She will perform the song live at the Opening Ceremony on March 18 and at the Closing Ceremony on March 24. The song begins with the words “Love is our language, there’s no need to fight.” This is the perfect anthem for these Special Olympics 2017 World Winter Games. If every person across our globe bears witness to the extraordinary love we Special Olympics athletes bring to our world, there truly is no need to fight.

In addition, as with the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, where SO Cheer made its first appearance, unified and traditional cheer team members will once again be making their mark on these 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games. SO Cheer will be at many of the sports venues to cheer on these incredible athletes.

The 2017 World Winter Games for Special Olympics truly brings a message of equality, tolerance, and acceptance. In light of recent news stories of inequality and intolerance, the message of this event is much needed today. As the tagline of these World Games suggests, the Special Olympics movement will bring a “heartbeat for the world.”

Join me and let’s bring a heartbeat to the world, thereby creating acceptance and inclusion in our communities for those of us with special needs.

You can listen to an interview with Jamiah Shepard and hear Special Olympics podcast coverage on Special Chronicles at

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Originally published: February 28, 2017
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