Here at adidas’ HQ in Herzogenaurach, Germany, we were given the opportunity to support this year’s Special Olympics on a voluntary basis. Our role was to support the training camps on the adidas campus and the outfitting event in Berlin.
What I didn’t know when I signed up was that this would become such a life-changing experience for me. I used to think that our purpose, “Through sport we have the power to change lives”, impacted the lives of others and never really considered how it could affect me on a personal level. But after working with the German Special Olympics team, I realized that it’s a two-way street. It also had an impact on me. In fact, I’m not sure whose lives it has changed more…
An introduction to the Special Olympics
The Special Olympics is just one example of the many purpose projects we support. adidas equips the German team and offered support on their way to the Games by giving some of the teams the opportunity to stay and train on the adidas campus in Herzogenaurach.
I immediately signed up for the project, but shortly after that, my friend’s daughter passed away from cancer and I was not sure if I could handle it emotionally.
Despite my initial hesitation, I did get onboard following a personal discussion with Marina Müller, the project lead. She alleviated my concerns and told me that I could be myself with the athletes and the athletes are fine with me being sad or maybe even crying.
And she was right. Firstly, they distracted me from my gloomy thoughts and secondly, they showed me how to celebrate life.
Meeting the athletes for the very first time
For the first training camp in March, I was assigned to the basketball team. I accompanied them to the gym and made sure everyone was on the bus when being ferried back and forth from the team’s hotel. But the athletes didn’t think I was just a supporter and spectator. They immediately asked me to join them in their warm-up, which was something I wasn’t really expecting! “If we do it, you have to do it too” was their attitude. And who could resist?
I’ve never really found myself in this kind of position before. I’ve never spent much time with people with intellectual disabilities, so I didn’t really know what to expect. You make assumptions, you see and hear stereotypes. You just need to be open and take the experience as it comes.
The very first thing I learned about people with intellectual disabilities is that many of them have something that we, as adults, have lost along the way. There was a degree of innocence, and they weren’t afraid to show their emotions. It was a joy to see how happy they were about every point that was scored, sometimes even when it was for their opponents. The day flew by and much fun we had. We quickly became a team – I felt fully integrated, and I had the feeling I’d made some new friends.
Reconnecting with new friends
A few weeks later, at the outfitting event in Berlin – and one day after the funeral – my new friends greeted me happily. Rarely have I been greeted so warmly by people I’ve only met once. But they showed their emotions without restraint. At the same time, we were running on a tight timeline and skeptical whether we had enough time to get the job done. After all, 575 people, 415 of them athletes, had to be outfitted. But the process ran smoothly, which was perhaps surprising to me.
Again, I found my preconceptions quickly cast away. While the athletes expressed themselves without restraint, they were always focused and disciplined when it was needed the most. There was no pushing and shoving, no nagging, just friendly faces. One athlete said, “It was great. It was like shopping without spending any money.”
Getting the party started
The best part of the event was the athlete disco. Most of the athletes were already tired after the long day, some yawning. But the mood changed abruptly when the mascot, Unity, entered the stage as guest of honor. Suddenly the team started moving again.
Everyone rushed to the stage to take a picture with Unity, and the joy of the athletes was contagious. This was even topped when the first song played. Everyone got up, moving to the beat, and the atmosphere was exuberant. Some danced alone, some together, some moved their whole body, some just their hands, and the longest polonaise I have ever seen spontaneously emerged.
It was obvious that these people know how to party and enjoy life. This joie de vivre was infectious. No one could escape it.
My personal learnings
After visiting my friends at the second training camp in May, I find myself reflecting on the experience as a whole. This experience has taught me that sport isn’t just changing the lives of others, but also our own.
Through sports, we can connect emotionally with people and become part of a group. It has also reminded me that expressing unfiltered emotions and intensely is something we should never forget. Volunteering my private time for the Special Olympics project has been a rewarding experience, and I will cheer for “my basketball girls” during the games with pride.