Special Olympics
Melissa Isaacson, ESPN.com 243d

The Games have ended, but the 'brave attempt' lives on

GRAZ, Austria -- Sometimes, like every day a couple times a day, this event just weakens you at the knees, forcing you to sit down and blink away tears or simply smile goofily.

That doesn't happen very often for a sportswriter. Sometimes we're moved, sometimes emotionally, sometimes actually physically -- by a PR person or security official or photographer whose shot you've just unwittingly wandered into.

Yes, there are great stories everywhere. And mothers who love their kids. And athletes who have overcome odds. But it doesn't happen every day, several times a day, on every team with every athlete as it does at the Special Olympics World Winter Games and every Special Olympics event, well, ever.

  • Special Olympics World Games: Complete coverage

  • Watch on ABC, ESPN2, WatchESPN and ESPN App

Here, mothers such as Barb Shimoda periodically burst into tears talking about their children. Not because she was reliving the day speech experts told her that her then-5-year-old autistic son would never speak a word, but because her now-24-year-old was about to take the starting line of the Graz, Austria, speedskating oval wearing "USA" across his chest.

"You'd think that would be awful when someone says that to you," she said of that day 19 years ago, and then gestured to the ice, sobbing as Tommy skated out. "But look at where he is."

Many of the mothers here have never experienced so much as the simple joy of driving their kids to soccer practice or baking cookies for the team. Or in the case of Julie McDonnell, whose son Brian started Special Olympics only five years ago at age 36, never invited his friends over because Brian never had a real friend before Special Olympics.

"Me and my brother and my sister, we were his friends," said his sister, Colette.

Now Brian has a club full of buddies back home in Mallow, Ireland, and on the national team that traveled to Austria. The national team.

When Brian was born in 1975, Julie said that "he didn't have these advantages. He went to a special school and there were races and teams at school, but there wasn't anything much for him."

She eventually heard of Special Olympics, "but I thought it was only top levels," she said. "He loves soccer. I just didn't know. I wish I would've known earlier."

A manager at a center Brian attended for various activities suggested Special Olympics five years ago. And when the family moved 22 miles from Ballincollig to Mallow in the County Cork two years later, Julie was prepared to make the 40-mile drive to take him back to Ballincollig to play soccer. But they found a club for Brian in Mallow that was even better, with basketball, kayaking, equestrian and other activities including a game called floorball, which is what he is playing at the World Games.

He is the oldest and not the highest-skilled on a team of 20-year-olds. But Brian's coach calls him "the happiest fella you'd ever meet, the life and soul of every party."

He literally skips onto the court in joy and will show you how he cheers on the team: "Come on, come on, ole, ole, ole," he sings, adding the Celtic football chant, "Come on, ye boys in green."

Since joining Special Olympics, Brian has weekly practices and regular games, and his sister marvels at his new life.

"My mother would have protected him against everyone [before]," Colette said. "But he has just flourished joining the team and being included. He's a lot more independent now. He gets on the bus to and from the center. My mother can see he's reaching his full potential."

Julie still has her moments, such as when Brian went to Dublin and then to Austria five days later with the national team, separating mother and son for the longest time ever.

"I missed him so much when he was gone," Julie said. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, I must ask Brian this.' I called down to him a few times.

"I started off by being worried about him that he wouldn't be able to do this, he wouldn't be able to do that," she added. "But he has accomplished so much. It is a real joy."

Brian's sister says his new teammates make Brian feel "comfortable and safe," which is not usually how an athlete's relationship to a team is described to a sportswriter.

"Now he has good friends who come over to watch a match and have a drink," said Colette. "He slots right in. He loves these boys."

A late addition to the Ireland World Games team after someone else dropped out, Brian was given a party at his local club with balloons and a cake and general revelry.

His mother, staring off onto the court and a world she never thought her son would be a part of, can't seem to wipe the smile or the tears off her face.

She is not alone.

^ Back to Top ^