I remember listening to my aunts voice. My amazing aunt who faced intellectual disabilities in poverty, during a time when knowledge and opportunities were scarce. I was nine years old, and her voice was distant and metallic, echoing over the answering machine, crackling into the air. Crooked letters stumbled on top of each other, creating long indecipherable slurs, but the elation was evident. “I got a silver.” The words were charged. They popped like fireworks made of glitter and trickled through the air until they faded leaving behind currents of sparks for me to breathe.
Friday was Savannah’s forth Track & Field with the TN Area 3 Special Olympics. When the day started with giggles, and the clock whimpered, “4:00,” the air was already electric. It pulsed and thrived with a charged excitement that made my flesh tingle, as i fumbled to make coffee. Whether bowling, bocce or track & field, Special Olympics days usually begin at 3:00am. There’s too much excitement to stay wrapped in dreams. Friday, i was fortunate enough to sleep until 4:00.
Savannah’s first special Olympics proved to be overwhelming, for both of us. There were athletes ranging from eight years old to well over sixty. There were athletes in wheelchairs, unable to move their heads; athletes that barely met the mental cusp; athletes, like Savannah, non-verbal and in need of a constant aide. Every athlete there, from Down Syndrome to Autism to Cerebral Palsy, brimmed and overflowed with the thrill of competition and impending glittering medals. Chatter filled the auditorium, accompanied by excited squeals and the squeaks of wheelchairs. Sweaty palms and pounding hearts echoed off the steel dome and wood-clipped floor. We were shuffled and shifted and caught up in the current of intensity which left us physically exhausted and emotionally drained with two bronze medals of courage in tote. Savannah had been confused and overwhelmed, standing at the 50 meter dash and then later running the dash at the softball throw, but at some point through the chaos, the current of excitement soaked through her flesh, poisoning her blood, causing her skin to glow. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I discovered how much of the event she had actually understood. Before bed one night, I slipped into her room for one last blanket-check. I found her well tucked, sleeping with her lips curled into a soft pink smile, her fingers tightly clinging to a bronze medal.
Four years later, we were veterans. The electricity and excitement serging through our veins. Savannah held her aide’s hand during the Parade of Athletes, stopping to smile for pictures. Flashes refracted of her pale skin, causing it to shimmer. Anxiously, she pulled and dragged us to her first event, the 50 meter dash, twenty minutes before the event. The year before we had practiced every evening. This year it had rained the month before. “Go!” Rang out, muffled and stifled by cheering. Amazing athletes ran on either side of Savannah. She stood in the middle lane, her head buried in her arms, her eyes squeezed closed. Her aide encouraged her a few steps, but her eyes and head remained hidden. After the other athletes were finished, after they were congratulated and given their times, Savannah’s aide was still walking with her down the lane. Savannah finally crossed the line, never once looking up. She stood stoic on the risers, receiving her bronze, refusing to smile.
As soon as we returned to the other athletes on her team, the giggling began. The weight of bronze resting against her heart had charged it. It was irrelevant she hadn’t run. She had finished. She had been overwhelmed, but more importantly she had overcome. The other athletes had run faster, but Savannah had worked harder for each step, and now there were fireworks vibrating within her.
The energy of the day was starting to wear on all of us by the time her second event arrived. It was time to throw the softball. For her birthday, we had given her a softball. A reflective green softball to lead her practice. To lead her to the silver, which it did after an eight-foot throw. Physically exhausted, emotionally tired, and anxious to leave the currents of electricity behind, she accepted her second silver medal.
We spent the evening physically drained and emotionally charged, with finger foods and movies and giggling. Visiting grandmothers, in town for the electric event, lounged with pride and satisfaction seeping through their flesh, secretly hoping for an early bedtime. For Savannah, the thrill carried through the weekend, as she insisted on wearing her Special Olympics athletic outfit to church on Sunday. The girlie fashionista, usually wearing pink and purple and fur and leopard print and boots and glitter, instead wore sneakers, an athletic skort and the dark blue Area 3 t-shirt. Her fashion statement screamed what she couldn’t: how incredibly proud she was of her accomplishment and, like all of us, how ready she was for next year’s fireworks.