It's About Being Brave

What is it that makes a good athlete a great athlete ---strength, agility, endurance? Perhaps. But what about traits of character such as perseverance, commitment, and determination-are they not at least equally important? Think of Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis, Florence Joyner, Michael Johnson, Bo Jackson, Cheryl Swoop and Michael Jordan? Is it physical strength or strength of character that carried them to the top of their game? Lance Armstrong battled the perils of cancer and went on to win the Tour de France more than once. Was it merely physical capabilities that propelled him to such greatness, or is the common denominator of great athletes found in the testament of something else---something from which everything else evolves. Not sure? Keep reading---you just might find the answer.

On April 26 and 27, the Naval Academy will host its 35th annual Naval Academy Games, also known as the Spring Games for Special Olympics Anne Arundel County. "This is a large, two-day event sponsored by the Annapolis Jaycees and hosted by the Naval Academy," says Gregg Meade, area director, Special Olympics Anne Arundel County (SOAAC).

The festivities begin early Saturday morning as the athletes make their grand entrance, accompanied by the Naval Academy Band, thus kicking off a commencement celebration reminiscent of any great sporting event. There's the national anthem, speeches by dignitaries, and an ardent reciting of the athletes' oath, "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." This is the foundation on which Special Olympics is grounded and a motto by which each athlete lives daily.

The commencement ceremonies are followed by the day's aquatic events. "This year we expect over 100 swimmers," says Meade. And swim they will, giving heart and soul as they race diligently against their competitors and their own personal challenges until they reach that finish line. Cheered on by family, friends and a crowd of spectators, the energy of the moment invigorates the athletes and the onlookers. All are overcome with adrenaline and uninhibited excitement when seemingly impossible tasks are performed not only with tenacity and stamina but with pride and spirit. On Sunday, the competition continues with a day of track and field events.

"The athletes love the fact that the games are held at the Academy and they look forward to it with great anticipation," Meade says. "One of the highlights for the athletes is that they are teamed up with their own midshipman who escorts him or her throughout the entire day." The midshipman makes sure the athlete gets to events on time, eats a nutritious meal and, of course, the mid cheers them on. "The athletes just love it, " says Meade. "And so do the midshipmen." Some have really bonded and formed friendships that last long beyond their years at the Naval Academy. "It's truly a rewarding experience for everyone." There's also food and awards ceremonies, everything that makes a sporting event great fun for all.

Prior to the games, the athletes and coaches commit themselves to a rigorous training schedule during which they work diligently, following the guidelines mandated by Special Olympics International. Athletes from this event can qualify to compete in the State Games at the University of Maryland, and then gold medal winners at the state level qualify to take their talent to Ireland for the World Games in July.

On top of their game, SOAAC is a non-profit organization that offers year-round sports training events and competitions free of charge for children and adults with mental retardation or closely related developmental disabilities. "Currently we have 300 athletes and about 120 coaches and volunteers who work on a regular year 'round basis," Meade says. "I could not do my job without the help and support of my management team." All positions at the county level (including Meade's) are unpaid.

Funding is provided solely through fundraising, grants and private donations. "Our community is extremely supportive of Special Olympics and for that we are grateful. We always manage to meet our budget requirements," says Meade. SOAAC fundraisers include the South River Golf Tournament, a Blues Festival at Sandy Point State Park, the annual Polar Bear Plunge, a 5K Halloween run, and basket bingo.

Meade became involved with SOAAC nearly 10 years ago as a coach when his own son, Nicholas, became an athlete. His wife Martha is also very active with the organization. They both agree that it's the most rewarding thing they have ever done. "I'm constantly in awe of what these individuals overcome to do the things they do," says Martha. "They never cease to amaze me."

The inspiration that radiates from the Special Olympics athlete goes much deeper than sports---it's a philosophy for life. "I've learned so much just from being around these incredible people," says Meade. "They can teach us so many things, like humility. We often choose not to try something because we think we may embarrass ourselves, but those thoughts never enter the minds of these individuals. They just think, 'I want to try that,' and they do."

Meade continues, "They also teach us perseverance. Even though we may not be the best at something, it should not keep us from doing it." The Meades share a personal testimony involving their son Nicholas during a qualifying run for the Winter Games 100-meter downhill race. "It was very slick and icy," they recall. "Nicholas kept falling down and the rules are that if you do not get back up within two minutes, you're disqualified. But he kept getting back up. I'm not exaggerating, he must have fallen forty times---it took him more than ten minutes to make those hundred meters, but he never gave up. He just kept going until he crossed the finish line. We could not have been more proud---and then he went on to win the gold the next day. That's what Special Olympics is all about."

This organization, whose logo reads "Inspire Greatness," has done just that. They represent some of the world's greatest athletes. Perhaps they have also provided an answer to our original question and unearthed the enigma to a great athlete---a triumphant and gargantuan spirit.

For more information about SOAAC visit the website at or call 410-923-0383.


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