Special Olympics

For ESPN’s Jason Benetti, Special Olympics ‘inspires’ in meaningful ways

Victoria Arlen (L) and Jason Benetti reporting during the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games (Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)
Analyst Victoria Arlen (L) and commentator Jason Benetti report from the aquatics competitions during the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
(Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason Benetti joined ESPN as a play-by-play announcer for college basketball in 2011. He also has called college football, baseball and lacrosse games, as well as high school football. During ESPN’s weeklong coverage of Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015 that concluded Sunday, Benetti’s calls of the day’s action were featured in the “competition showcase” segments. Benetti has cerebral palsy, which impacts his balance and ability to walk, but not his on-air work. In this Front Row post, he recaps his experience calling the World Games.

The word which gets tossed around most when we discuss the achievements of people with disabilities is “inspiring.”

It’s an easy word to use because we’ve all heard it so much.

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I heard it this week at Special Olympics World Games 2015 in Los Angeles from athletes, parents of athletes, fans, volunteers and colleagues among others. I said it myself.

For the most part, it came in the form of, “Wow, that young lady is so inspiring,” or, “This event is an inspiration.”

Those thoughts come with a smile and, from what I can tell, signal that the person has been touched deeply and lovingly by what he or she is seeing.

What I didn’t hear as much of this week is: “That athlete inspired me to. . .”

That’s the wonder of Special Olympics; it’s difficult to know what seeing such extraordinary dedication and performances will do to us or for us in the future.

But, if what we all witnessed this past week is going to affect others, “I’m inspired to. . .” will be the conduit.

Upon reflection, a few moments stand out to me:

  • Chris McElroy, 27, from Denver, won gold in the 100-meter freestyle. His mother, Lourdes, told me that day that she always thought Chris would be behind in life because of his disability. In Los Angeles, he never trailed in his race to gold. The McElroys inspire me to embrace being in the back of the field as a chance to get ahead.
  • Alec Falzon from Malta – “The Maltese Falzon” — gladly took his first two turns at the softball throw. When a volunteer called him up for his third toss, he said “no” twice before reluctantly accepting his third attempt. He chucked the yellow ball down the USC field and flashed a smile. Falzon inspired me to keep going with something I’ve worked at, even if a negative moment shows its face.
  • Olivia Quigley, a runner, has Stage 4 breast cancer. She paused her chemotherapy in order to compete in the Games. She won a gold medal in her 100-meter race. After the race, I asked her why she runs. She said, “It makes me feel good, even on days when it feels like I’m going to die.” Quigley inspired me to push harder, even when I’m sick, tired or down in any way.
    It’s an atmosphere of inclusion. Because of cerebral palsy and my resulting gait, I generally get offered more help and draw more stares than the average person when I walk in public. In Los Angeles, I was just a person making his way through the world – and so were the athletes.

    The broad lesson I’ll take from this past week, though, emanates from the environment at the Special Olympics World Games.

    It’s an atmosphere of inclusion. Because of cerebral palsy and my resulting gait, I generally get offered more help and draw more stares than the average person when I walk in public.

    In Los Angeles, I was just a person making his way through the world – and so were the athletes.

    The question, “What’s wrong with him?” was replaced by, “What’s he like?”

    That change at the World Games, I hope, inspires everyone to slide past the first impression.

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