One of the most interesting and fruitful things I was exposed to during my time in the U.K. was the Down Syndrome sports community. I did a few sporting activities with individuals with special needs in other countries, primarily through Special Olympics, but what I found in the U.K. was a thriving community of athletes competing in Down Syndrome-only sporting events. This is a fairly unique approach to sports and something we don't really do in the United States.
I found the discussion on the merits of Down Syndrome-only sports to be quite interesting. I had thought some on the efficacy of Down Syndrome-only sports in Germany when I went on a training walk with Running Club 21. This was a small, but successful group of people who trained for marathons in particular. The U.K. though has made Down Syndrome-only sports a prominent and organized sporting community. Special Olympics is a great organization, but due to its pan-disability participation, it may not be the best fit for people with Down Syndrome who have both intellectual and physical limitations. Down Syndrome-only sports provides an opportunity for individuals to train and compete against people with similar abilities. Of course, there is a wide range of ability level amongst individuals with Down Syndrome themselves. So this approach doesn't entirely eliminate the discrepancy.
The president of the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organization, who turned out to be one of the most welcoming and helpful contacts I made in the U.K., explained that these were some of his motivations for starting the Swimming Organization. Additionally, he shared that Down Syndrome-only sports attempt to provide higher caliber training and competition than Special Olympics provides. Bailey is doing Special Olympics soccer at the moment. The team practices once a week for a few months and they participate in three tournaments. This is the typical time commitment for most Special Olympics sports. And it works great for most people! It's good exercise and provides a fun time with their peers. However, there are some Down Syndrome athletes who would thrive given the opportunity to practice multiple days per week and compete with other similarly abled individuals in legitimate competitions. There is a lot of debate about whether or not people with Down Syndrome can and should participate in the Paralympics. To combat this, Down Syndrome-only sports provides the opportunity for these individuals to reach the top of their sport. Whatever the sport, whatever the intensity level, Down Syndrome-only, or pan-disability, the most important thing is to provide the opportunity for people with special needs to do what they love.
I got to see a couple of these sporting events in action. I went to a regional swim meet just outside London. It was fantastic! All the athletes did a great job! And the strong chlorine smell and extreme humidity in the pool really brought me back to my own swimming days. Everything was very well organized, but there may have been a few races when the athlete didn't know he or she was finished... It became quite a struggle to flag some of them down! They just wanted to keep swimming! Too cute.
The same day Bailey had one of her track meets, I was at an all day gymnastics event in Leicester (which is pronounced Lester...) Once again I was impressed with everyone's efforts. It was especially amazing to see the boys on the rings and parallel bars. Wow! Such strength! Gymnastics offers numerous opportunities for medaling. Each medal recipient was so excited to get a medal and stand on the podium. It didn't matter if it was their first or their fifth, the joy brought a smile to everyone's face.
|Awesome moves on the parallel bars!|
|These little boys were great!|
|Team artistic floor routine.|
|Had to include a picture of my sister! I loved getting What'sApp |
updates of Bailey in Oregon as I watched gymnasts in England.
The swimming and gymnastic events were great examples of high caliber Down Syndrome-only sports. Some of the athletes I saw do compete on the international level. However, more low key Down Syndrome-only sports are available in the U.K. as well. DSActive is a program run through the U.K.'s Down Syndrome Association. They work directly with the local soccer (errr football... but now that I'm back in the U.S. I'm going to call it soccer again...) and tennis clubs to offer weekly practices for kids with Down Syndrome. I was really impressed with the coaches' patience and their ability to adapt the drills to fit everyone's skill level.
One of my favorite memories of DSActive soccer is of a young man named Chris. Chris was pretty quiet and shy, but he had a sneaky gleam in his eye. During the scrimmage he camped out near the goal and quietly scored multiple goals, even nutmegging the goalie on one occasion. It was brilliant! After each goal, he would give a subtle thumbs up and reposition himself near the goal. I think back on simple little stories like this a lot. In the midst of my crazy, grad school schedule, when my Watson year feels like the distant past, these sweet memories take me right back to the moment.