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Beyond the Medal

December 4, 2015

As the world celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we’re pleased to highlight the story of Matthew Williams, a participant in our 2014 Symposium and an inspiring leader within the Special Olympics movement who recently shared his story at TEDxVancouver.

At the young age of 23, Special Olympian Matthew Williams has, among other things, dined with President Barack Obama at the White House, addressed the Greek Parliament and met influential international businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Yet, this humble athlete didn’t even think to mention this in an interview – it was his father Bill Williams who beamed with pride speaking about his son’s achievements. When asked about moments he is proud of, Matthew brings up experiences of connectedness, belonging and representing his local and global teammates.

As Kim Samuel recalled when marching alongside Matthew as part of Team Canada at the Opening Ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Summer Games in LA this year, Matthew shines as a true ambassador of social connectedness. He shared with her that the parade of athletes and representing his country is his favourite part of all of training, the competition and the accolades.

As a recent Special Olympics international board member and Chair of the Global Athletes Congress, Matthew was present at the 2012 SportAccord convention, which brought together leaders in the international sports community. The recognition of Special Olympics as a legitimate sports organization was invaluable to him. “The fact SportAccord felt we were an important organization to have in the room and that they acknowledged that we could use their support and we could benefit their organizations made me feel really dignified,” he said. Matthew feels it is absolutely essential to create space for athletes with intellectual disabilities to be their own spokespeople.

At the recent 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, Matthew competed on the Canadian team in Basketball, placing fourth.
At the recent 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, Matthew competed on the Canadian team in Basketball, placing fourth.

By doing so, he feels as though misconceptions of people with intellectual disabilities can be broken down and their abilities can be highlighted. “I think people with intellectual disabilities can teach others about determination and overcoming odds,” says Matthew. “A lot of people with disabilities are told they aren’t going to be able to do something, but they don’t look at it as a barrier, they go out and give it their all and try to achieve those goals they set for themselves.”

Overcoming challenges

Special Olympics played a pivotal role in overcoming isolation and creating a sense of belonging for Matthew. Due to his disability, he struggled through school, feeling frustrated that he couldn’t learn as quickly as his classmates. Bill Williams saw his son struggling in generic hockey – hockey for people without disabilities – not being able to keep up with his teammates. Bill was worried. “I would be so tense watching him,” he said. This all turned around once Matthew joined Special Olympics. “I just remember feeling so relaxed knowing he was with his peers and having a great time. I can’t imagine his life without it.”

Now, Bill is a Special Olympics coach and appreciates the sense of support and togetherness that comes from networking with other parents of people with intellectual disabilities. “It’s definitely like a support group. I remember when Matt first joined, a lot of other parents gave us a lot of information and shared different resources to get the kids help and assistance.”

Beyond having the chance to build relationships with other parents, Bill sees the impact Special Olympics has on athletes. “There is such a degree of disability but all the athletes can really gain from it and get active and get social. You see the joy that’s for sure.”

In addition to having the chance to meet people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics provides a chance for interaction with other sports lovers. From games against the RCMP and local politicians to junior hockey teams, Bill Williams feels these opportunities break down misconceptions of special athletes. “People don’t really know what to expect from people with intellectual disabilities but then they realize they’re just like us. They joke, laugh and have fun – and some of them are really good athletes.”

Bill feels the idea of unified sports – competitions where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities compete together – work to build a sense of inclusion, acceptance and leadership in young people.

For Matthew, the feedback he gets from spectators is incredibly important in building a sense of understanding and connectedness. “People are surprised,” he says. “They come out thinking Special Olympics are just for fun and recreation so when I can go out and show that they are competitive and hear “wow, I never thought you guys could race or play at that level,” it means a lot to me.” Matthew has now become the first certified personal trainer in Special Olympics and is building his career in growing the performance of the next generation of athletes.

The spirit of sportsmanship

Like the Olympics, Special Olympics follow a 4 year cycle. During the last national games in the summer of 2014, a tragic incident stunned Matthew’s basketball team – The Warriors. The Warriors were undefeated coming into the games but lost their first game by one basket. With emotions already running high, Sean Annan, the 6’4” starter power forward, fell while warming up with his signature dunk, resulting in a compound leg fracture. “It was devastating for him, for the team, for the fans watching – almost surreal,” said Kurc Buzdegan, the team’s coach.

Before starting the next game, one of the Warriors wrote Sean’s jersey number, 7, on his arm, and the rest of the team followed. The day after, The Warriors heard that almost every athlete, across every sport in Canada had written a number 7 on their arm or leg in solidarity with Sean and the team. “The spirit of sportsmanship bolstered the team,” said Buzdegan. The team ended up winning more than just a medal that day. “The medal for the team was a tremendous award, but for me this was the affirmation that these young athletes were just that – athletes.”

Buzgedan’s son also has an intellectual disability, and for him, athleticism is about more than just sports. It brings out leadership skills, critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork and supportive efforts that give a sense meaning and purpose that translates to other parts of athletes lives. When Buzgedan thinks of his son, Matthew and Sean, he doesn’t see disability. “I see potential, I see passion and purpose,” he said.

Matthew participating in the Symposium on overcoming Isolation and fostering Social Connectedness, 2014
Matthew participating in the Symposium on overcoming Isolation and fostering Social Connectedness, 2014

Creating an athlete-led global movement

Now, Matthew describes winning medals as merely “icing on the cake.”  Exceeding his own expectations and improving himself are his main goals in sport, but his dreams go beyond competition. When asked about his hopes for the future he said, “My hope is individuals with intellectual disabilities are included in their community and contributing members of society in the future.”

As Chair of the Special Olympics Global Athlete Congress, Matthew is responsible for representing a global voice for athletes around the world. During the 2010 gathering in Morocco, Matthew had the chance to listen and share with other athletes, learning about their successes and challenges. “It was more than just sport,” said Matthew. “There were talks about health, nutrition and everything involved in the organization at a global level.”

Matthew feels the informal talks that took place were just as important in building a global movement. “It was really unique to communicate with athletes,” he said. “Finding out about competitions, the things people do in their daily lives, the informal atmosphere gave athletes a chance to find out more about general life.”

The movement may be strong, but along with that strength comes challenges. One of these challenges is having athletes recognized as leaders when they go back to their communities. “Athletes felt there were these leadership opportunities to get developed as a public speaker or sit on a board, but once they had that training, they were underutilized in their community.” He hopes that better communication within the organization and awareness raising activities can address this problem and respect athletes as global leaders.

Matthew competing at the 2012 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games
Matthew competing at the 2012 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games

Another movement Matthew is involved with is the End the R Word campaign which aims to halt the use of the word retard(ed) and transform into the word respect. “People still use the r-word not really understanding the effects and how much it hurts people with intellectual disabilities,” Matthew explained. Globally, over 550,000 people have pledged to take the r-word out of their vocabulary and a website provides concrete actions people can take to end the use of it. “I just really hope people will identify me as an equal. I understand there are challenges and that I am different,” he said,  “I just want people to see me as me.”

Transforming from a shy kid struggling to fit-in, to a global spokesperson and inspiring role model for people with and without intellectual disabilities, Matthew Williams’ sportsmanship, confidence and team spirit makes him a shining example of the strength Special Olympics has in overcoming social isolation. He recently spoke at TEDxVancouver alongside a number of other local leaders and changemakers continuing to share his messages of the importance of social inclusion and the power of sport to transform lives.

@SpecialOlympics athlete Matthew Williams brings down the house. We need to stop using the R word. #TEDxVan
— TEDxVancouver (@tedxvancouver) November 15, 2015

To learn more about Special Olympics and opportunities to get involved visit