‘I just want to run’: how Special Olympics touches the lives of those with dis­abil­i­ties

▶ NYU Abu Dhabi re­veals the state-of-the-art venue that will be used for the re­gional and world Games

The National - News - - NEWS -

About 1,200 ath­letes are ex­pected to take part in the Special Olympics Mid­dle East and North Africa Re­gional Games in March next year

Khadija Al Zaabi does not know how many medals her daugh­ter has won, but she knows that each of them is a mile­stone.

“There are so many I can’t count them. But ev­ery time she gets one of them, she’s a dif­fer­ent per­son – she’s happy,” Ms Al Zaabi said.

Her daugh­ter, Maryam, who has learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, is one of about 1,200 ath­letes ex­pected to take part in the Special Olympics Mid­dle East and North Africa Re­gional Games in Abu Dhabi in March next year.

The larger Special Olympics World Games will be held, also in Abu Dhabi, the fol­low­ing March.

Maryam, a run­ner, has com­peted in other events and al­ways comes home with some­thing to show her fam­ily.

“I run round and round and I don’t get tired. I am happy when I win. I just want to run,” said Maryam, 29.

She and her friend Shaima Zade, who suf­fers from cere­bral palsy, are mem­bers of the Dubai Club for Special Needs. Run­ning is their life, said Shaima’s el­der sis­ter Fah­meeda, who is an ad­min­is­tra­tor at the club.

The cen­tre takes them for train­ing for a few hours a day from 5pm.

“Shaima gets ready from 11am. In the morn­ing she gets dressed and just waits for when it’s time to go to the club,” she said.

“Be­fore she joined the club one of her legs used to be curved. Now it’s straight and she is more ac­tive.”

New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi yes­ter­day un­veiled the fa­cil­i­ties that will be used for the ath­let­ics and power-lift­ing events at both events. Its Olympic-size swim­ming pool will also be used.

“NYUAD has world-class fa­cil­i­ties as well as a hugely di­verse stu­dent pop­u­la­tion who will make brilliant vol­un­teers at the Games,” said Peter Wheeler, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.

“We are look­ing for­ward to work­ing with them to put on the most uni­fied Special Olympics Games in his­tory.”

The 2019 games will fea­ture seven days of com­pe­ti­tion in 24 sports in­clud­ing bas­ket­ball, ath­let­ics, golf, ten­nis, cy­cling and swim­ming.

“It is vi­tal. It re­ally brings peo­ple to­gether,” said Allyson Felix, the Amer­i­can sprinter who won Olympic gold in the 200 me­tres at London 2012.

“It gives pur­pose, and just see­ing other parts of the world is very im­por­tant.

“The in­clu­sion that the Special Olympics will bring here is a great demon­stra­tion to the world of ac­cep­tance and pride in all abil­i­ties.”

Niko­lad Nielsen, a mem­ber of the New York Univer­sity branch cam­pus’s stu­dent body, said that the univer­sity was thrilled to be part of both games.

“We are here be­cause we be­lieve that sports bring joy and pur­pose to the lives of all kinds of ath­letes, no mat­ter their abil­i­ties,” Mr Nielsen said.

He shared a story of a young Emi­rati he met last year for a se­ries of swim­ming classes.

“I was not very con­fi­dent in the wa­ter and I had heard that Suhail was quite the swim­mer, so I won­dered if I could keep up with him,” Mr Nielsen said.

“Suhail is on the autism spec­trum and finds it dif­fi­cult to meet new peo­ple.

“But if he felt un­com­fort­able when we met, he did not show it. As soon as we got in the wa­ter he sprinted to­wards the deep end.

“In the weeks that fol­lowed, I learnt more about swim­ming than he did, just so I could chase be­hind him in the pool.

“Suhail lit­er­ally tested the bound­aries of what he could do as an ath­lete with dif­fer­ent in­tel­lec­tual abil­i­ties.

“He felt a mag­netic pull to­wards com­pet­i­tive sports. He moved in the wa­ter with skill, but also with joy.”

The UAE will be the first coun­try in the Mid­dle East to host the Special Olympics World Games af­ter unan­i­mously win­ning the vote at a meet­ing of the board of di­rec­tors in Wash­ing­ton DC last year.

Most of the ath­letes have never been to this part of the world and will have a week to get used to the city and be in­tro­duced to the UAE and its cul­ture, or­gan­is­ers said.

Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

Amer­i­can Olympian Allyson Felix with Special Olympics ath­letes at NYU Abu Dhabi yes­ter­day

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