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No cheering in the press box? I’ll make this the exception.

ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski recalls some of the many highlights from his first Special Olympics World Games assignment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this month, ESPN presented more than 175 hours of live coverage coverage of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi. On Front Row, ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski anticipated his first Special Olympics World Games assignment; in this post, he revisits the experience. In the video above, he provides the voice over for this essay about ESPN Images photographers Scott Clarke and Phil Ellsworth helping a former Special Olympics athlete-turned-photographer at the World Games.

I can’t remember all the names — there were so many athletes I saw during the course of the World Games – but I remember their faces. Most of all, I remember their smiles, their undistilled joy, their ability to do something that seems to be absent in sports at times: Have fun.

There was a young woman from Haiti whose mother had died and whose father couldn’t care for her. Her right arm didn’t work. She couldn’t have weighed more than 110 pounds. But during the equestrian competition, she won gold by artfully steering a 1,000-pound horse through a course with only her left hand and her gentle will. It’s as if her horse — and they had only been matched a few days earlier — understood that this was a woman to be respected.

When she finished, she had a look of contentment, of accomplishment, of happiness. Ask me what I’ll always take with me from Abu Dhabi, and it will be that. It was the first time I had ever broken the cardinal rule of sports journalism: no cheering in the press box.

But in this case, I can live with the shame. I couldn’t help but to think of everything she had overcome — and likely still faces on a daily basis. But there she was, riding from the indoor venue, into the sunlight, and doing so with such grace and dignity. Even her horse seemed proud.

I saw an American mixed doubles team, their wedding scheduled for this October, lose in the tennis final. Their disappointment evaporated when I asked them later about their first-ever date. “He was a gentleman,” she said sweetly.

Most of all, I loved that there were no distinctions here. There was no “normal,” no preconceptions. There was only courage, respect, sportsmanship, and love. Maybe that’s why I found myself smiling all the time.

A mom of an athlete saw my ESPN credential at an awards ceremony and approached with hand extended.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” she said.

But she had it all wrong. I should have been the one thanking her.

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