TALENT, unfailing belief, sacrifice, commitment, sweat, pain and most importantly a desire to be the best are key characteristics of an Olympian.
Similarly, and surprisingly to some, intellectually disabled athletes who compete at the Special Olympics also endure an equally, and even more physically and mentally demanding regimen to reach their fullest potential.
What and who drives their inspiration and motivation to excel in sport? How does a coach get into the mind of an intellectually disabled athlete to get the best performance out of them?
How do special athletes cope with training, communication, competing in front large crowds; all while maintaining the right psychological mind set to give their all?
Firstly, the Special Olympics is for people with intellectual disabilities, while the Paralympics features those with physical disability only.
Special Olympics, however, also caters for people who have physical disabilities within their intellectual challenges. This means an athlete could have an intellectual disability, but also a movement disorder such as cerebral palsy, and still be eligible to compete at the Special Olympics.
The making of a Special Olympian is equally challenging on all counts as compared to preparing a mainstream athlete for the quadrennial Summer Games.
According to several administrators, coaches, former and current Special Olympians, understanding the athlete’s disability and competitive mentality is of top priority.
“The main thing with coaching athletes with intellectual disability is understanding what their abilities are and working with them to get the best out of them; but not patronising them at the same time,” said Special Olympics TT (SOTT) chairman David Benjamin.
“It’s critical for the coach wanting to understand all of the things normal coaches would look at. Training methods, physiology of training, body mechanics and technique.
“It’s necessary to reach out to an athlete psychologically and encourage them. Also, the different methods of analysing the sport and including the athlete in that analysis.”
David Benjamin -
Benjamin said another key aspect of training Special Olympians is getting them to understand that he/she is no less/more than the others. He believes their training and competitiveness is no less rigorous than for mainstream sports. It’s a level playing field.
Veteran national bocce coach Innocents Hamilton has over 30 years’ experience working with TT’s special athletes. Although it's been challenging at times, the SOTT official has stayed true to her passion.
Like Benjamin, Hamilton stressed the importance of empathising and not sympathising with the athlete and parents. The bocce coach was lost for words when she described the feeling of tapping into an athlete’s psyche and getting them to perfect their skill.
“It’s very hard dealing with a special athlete, but patience and love is key. You must know the sport and be able to adapt. Special athletes cannot interpret actions the way we do. They interpret it in their own way but you get almost the same result. Give them a leeway, but guide them. Sit down, talk and repeat everything over and over. Repetition is important.
“But nothing can describe the feeling of seeing them succeed. There were many meets I attended and was constantly brought to tears by our athletes’ performances,” she said.
Hamilton also coached former Special Olympian the late Shanice Baptiste, who died in January 2020 after suffering from a lung disorder. Baptiste competed in bocce and was selected to represent TT at the 2019 Special Olympic International World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
She was unable to do so after having a severe asthma attack. She was hospitalised there for two weeks before returning home, and after ailing for some time, she died at her home in Whiteland (near Williamsville).
Baptiste, who was mildly hearing-impaired and a good player, was integral in Hamilton’s team, since she used sign language to communicate the coach’s instructions to those who were severely hearing-impaired.
Ancil Greene, however, a two-time TT Special Olympics medallist in swimming (100-metre breaststroke and 4x50m freestyle) is living proof that intellectual disability does not restrict an athlete from competing in mainstream sport.
The 44-year-old dropped out of school at 16 and was dubbed a “slow learner”. While at home, he began liming with the wrong crowd and was soon enrolled at the National Centre for Persons with Disability (NCPD) by an uncle.
He began to learn the different trades provided, such as agriculture and bookbinding. Greene represented NCPD at several national meets and took a particular liking to swimming.
At 25, in 1992, Greene began to motivate himself more and completed a Learn to Swim class.
Three years later, the surging talent competed at his first Special Olympics in Connecticut, US, and then once more in 1999 (North Carolina). In the former, he won 4x50m freestyle gold – alongside Ezekiel Baptiste, Rawle Estrada and Emmanuel Marshall – and also captured silver in the 100m breaststroke.
He went on to become a seven-time national triathlon champion and has been an active swim coach for the past 15 years.
After his second stint at the Games, Greene opted out of competitive swimming and was inspired by late veteran swim coach Ralph Lincoln "Linky" Yearwood to have a go at triathlon one year later.
At that time, Yearwood coached at St Michael’s Pool and Fitness Centre in San Fernando. Greene assisted him with children’s classes. Yearwood thought Greene should have a shot at multi-sport and he attempted his first triathlon in 2000.
After a somewhat uninspiring performance, Greene continued to work and amplified his cycling and running sessions. A year later, he sent shockwaves throughout the SOTT and triathlon fraternity by placing second behind eventual winner Jason Gooding at the TT National Triathlon Championships.
In 2003, he won the National Triathlon title for the first time, having ridden several of his cycling laps with a flat tyre.
For the next 15 years, Greene defied doubters by dominating the local triathlon/duathlon/half-marathon circuit by racking up a host of impressive podium performances. Several of these triathlons were Olympic distances (1,500m swim, 40-kilometre bike ride and 10km run).
His success also overflowed into neighbouring islands and he also went on to win several events in the Caribbean.
Inspired and driven by coaches Cheryl Samuel, Kester Edwards and Yearwood, to name a few, Greene sometimes had to dig deep to overcome the stigma associated with being a special athlete.
“I got negative feedback all the time. People used to say, ‘Well, nothing ain’t wrong with you.’ They always said, ‘He’s a Special Olympian. What could he possibly do?’ It affected me psychologically and I began to question myself.
Greene opted to “hide” before some triathlon races and only when it was almost time to begin would head over to the starting line.
“A lot of coaches don’t know how psychology works. So I used YouTube and looked at veteran runners. They said it was necessary to visualise what you planned to do during the race.
“So I began to take myself away from the crowd of athletes and go to a quiet place and mentally prepare myself. This helped me improve my results a lot.”
At the 2019 Abu Dhabi Games, Greene served as SOTT assistant swim coach under Stephen Telfer. There, the swim team captured five medals.
Greene has now retired from major competition but participates in smaller triathlon events when possible. He is certified as a swim coach and does open-water training with young swimmers.
At present, Greene works as a lifeguard/aqua-aerobics/swim instructor with the Ministry of Sport.
On Greene’s achievements, Hamilton gave him credit for his transition from special athlete to mainstream participant to becoming a certified swim coach.
“Ancil was so good that he would have transcended out of Special Olympics and competed in mainstream sport and would have been on the top of his game.
“This is one example of many other athletes who have that level of potential. Right now we have an athlete who qualified for the national women’s beach soccer team. There are a lot of athletes with different levels of ability, some with lower and others with higher.”
SOTT national director Ferdinand Bibby believes special athletes have started receiving more recognition and support from the public over the past ten years. Although it's an uphill battle, Bibby remains confident. He thinks the public is now recognising that these athletes have immense ability and are capable of sporting excellence.
As with all sporting organisations, funding is critical. SOTT, like the majority of other similar entities, is strapped for funds, especially owing to the pandemic.
“We need to encourage corporate citizens to come out and assist our athletes in their sport development. We have, covid19 permitting, the Winter World Games in 2022 in Russia. A TT indoor floorball team is also registered to participate there.
“We’re looking for some support towards that. Our athletes are looking for acceptance in to mainstream clubs where they can have more access to training. Additionally, we’re also trying to get more coaches involved who can impact the over 1,500 athletes in the country,” Bibby added.
He also said coaching development would be one of SOTT’s main focal points for 2021. Training and certifying coaches and attracting more athletes into the programme arethe fraternity’s main objectives.
Looking back, Hamilton said SOTT has come a long way and has gradually progressed over the years, but more can still be done to aid its growth nationally.
She reiterated that people, even the parents of some special athletes, are still unable to accept and understand how a Special Olympian "works". Hamilton reminisced on how Greene played an instrumental role in helping her battle her fear of water (swimming).
Amidst the pandemic and the many negative repercussions of the virus, Hamilton retains some optimism.
“We’ve made some strides but I think it could be better. Families are more accepting to the fact that their child is special but still we have those who have the children hidden. Some parents are not letting their athletes out, owing to covid19.
“The virus has done a lot of damage to the athletes’ psyche. Special athletes can play for the entire day, especially if they like what they’re doing.
“When you teach a special athlete something, they are willing to learn, as compared to normal kids. They look for your approval. A pat on the back, a thumbs-up, a high five goes a long way,” she said.
SOTT is just one of over 130 arms of the Special Olympic Movement around the globe. It uses the avenue of sport to do holistic development of intellectually challenged athletes.
SOTT participates in 11 sports such as track and field, aquatics/swimming, volleyball, basketball, bocce/lawn bowling (for more severely disabled athletes with low mobility), football, cricket and equestrian events, among others.
To become a special athlete, you have to be clinically diagnosed with an intellectual disability. This person can register or be registered with an organisation such as NCPD or similar institutions. Once registered, you are given the opportunity to take part in domestic sport events. Your performances there help determine your chances of being selected to represent TT as a Special Olympian.