A Special Olympics trailblazer reveals how her biggest wins have been achieved outside the lanes

Mark Matcho

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 20 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

THIS HAS BEEN a busy time for me. I moved into a new home in Mashpee, Massachusetts, started a new job at the local bookstore and attended the wedding of one of my best friends from high school. Even though I've been suffering with my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A's, I couldn't be happier. That's because I'm training for the Special Olympics.

At the end of July, I will go to Los Angeles to swim in the Special Olympics World Games. I'll be entered in four events: the 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter breaststroke and 4x50-meter relay. I'm 29, and I have been competing in the Special Olympics for more than 12 years in aquatics as well as basketball and flag football. Over the years, I've won more than 35 gold medals.

My lap times may not be what my hero, Ryan Lochte, can do. But for me and the 7,000 other athletes from 177 countries who will be competing in LA, the World Games are a dream come true. In one way, the Special Olympics are even better than the Olympic Games because every athlete is celebrated. Our oath is "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." I say that to myself before every race.

Special Olympians have another goal. When we compete, we are hoping to open eyes and change minds. Those of us with intellectual and developmental disabilities can do much more than people think we can. Over the years, I've seen tremendous growth in Special Olympics and, along with that, increased awareness. The Unified Sports program, which pairs athletes with and without IDD, has been especially beneficial. In Massachusetts alone, we have more than 3,600 IDD athletes competing year-round.

I'm also honored to be a global messenger for Special Olympics Massachusetts. In that role, I have spoken at schools and events to tell my story and bring us all closer together.

I was born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a brain condition that can cause seizures and lead to developmental delays, as it did for me. I first had a stroke when I was 5 months old. In the years since then, there have been a lot of struggles for my parents, Jackie and Jim, my brothers, Todd and Jared, and me, but the Special Olympics have made our lives so much better. I measure my progress by remembering the first time I competed in the 25-meter breaststroke. It was difficult because my right side is weaker than my left. But I can now do 200 meters easily. And while I still take medication for seizures, I have gone three years without one, and I attribute that to my healthy lifestyle and training.

I'm on my own, living independently as part of the LIFE program. I swim three times a week, at least 1,200 yards at every practice. I also run on a treadmill and do weight training. And like Lochte, I have my own sponsor, Olympia Moving & Storage.

My speaking engagements have helped me build confidence. In those talks, I also tell people about the Spread the Word to End the Word movement. You know what the word is. It's hurtful not only to anyone with an intellectual disability but also to people in general. I will never forget the time my high school friend Chris was called the R-word and how upset he was about it. I would like for this word to be removed from our vocabulary because it's too often meant to humiliate others.

Besides, there are much better R-words to describe those of us who have risen to our challenges. Responsible. Resilient. Remarkable.

A few years ago, I was working as a receptionist in a law office. One day I was called into a staff meeting in the law library, but it was really a trick. Waiting for me were my parents, my friends and my co-workers. They were there to tell me I was being inducted into the Special Olympics Massachusetts Hall of Fame.

"You're my hero," my dad said to me.

When I leave for Los Angeles, I'll be packing memories like that. Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. -- AS TOLD TO STEVE WULF