~by: Ellery Aruldoss~
Hanako sits comfortably at one end of the sofa, her arms clasped gently in front of her. She answers my questions with sincere enthusiasm, her eyes at times glistening as she recounts her experiences. It isn’t every day I talk to an Olympian, especially one that has earned gold and silver medals for Singapore. The passion and fire is there, tempered by a kind, humble spirit. Hanako smiles with pride at what she has achieved.
The Japanese-born Hanako Sawayama was born with an intellectual disability that affected her cognitive capabilities. But where others would succumb to a life handicapped, Hanako turned the tables on her condition by taking part in sports since she was only 14. “The Olympics has always been my dream”, recalls Hanako who stuck to her passions, taking on swimming and bowling among other sports at a young age. Her dream was realized in 2003 when she bagged gold and silver medals in bowling at the Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Dublin, Ireland. Hanako does not boast her achievements, merely recalling the beauty of the venue and the environment filled with camaraderie and warmth.
Indeed the Special Olympics is unlike any other competition. Winning isn’t the goal, maximum participation is. That’s the beauty of it. Athletes need not pass a national trial nor possess some innate sporting talent; they only need to show a desire to participate for them to be entered as Olympians. Jermyn Toh, a BBDO consultant who works with Special Olympics Singapore points out that sports is “an enabler” and it enables people like Hanako to overcome their conditions and participate actively in events that celebrate the strength of the human spirit.
Taking part in the Special Olympics has allowed Hanako to push her boundaries and mould her into the outspoken humanitarian she is today. Hanako sits on the Executive Committee for Special Olympics Singapore, and she has been an International Global Messenger, sharing her story and her dreams to people around the globe. She also stands as a coach to the younger athletes, mentoring her adolescent charges. She recalls that prior to her exposure to the Special Olympics, she was a timid and quiet girl. But she has since blossomed into a woman full of confidence, such that she has been engaged as a keynote speaker for a host of events in the past years.
Unfortunately, mention the Olympics to any Singaporean and they may cite the woman’s table tennis team that earned a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing. Still others will recall the 2010 Youth Olympic Games and the nationwide blitz that surrounded its preparations. Few however, take note of the existence of Singapore’s Special Olympics.
Many do not know that Singapore hauled a remarkable 37 medals (12 gold, 13 silver and 12 bronze) at the 2011 World Games in Athens. Or that the Singaporean five-aside football team picked up a goal beating Chile in a tense penalty shoot-out. Or that Salihin Sinai became the first Singaporean Special Olympian to scale Mount Kilimanjaro. It is saddening that these athletes perform in increasingly empty halls, the rest of the nation hardly acknowledging their feats.
Special Olympics Singapore is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The organization provides opportunities for athletes to participate in National, Regional and World Special Olympic games, giving their athletes an outlet to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with the community.
Karyn Tan, a communications manager at Special Olympics Asia pacific, notes that the teams of Special Olympics have trainings regularly where people are always welcome to watch and cheer them on. There is a constant need for volunteers, coaches, any kind of support is welcome. This is an organization that does more than just help the disabled assimilate into society. It allows them to achieve something special; it allows them to become inspirations to others, heroes to the community.
As my meeting with Hanako draws to a close, she tells me of the Special Olympics motto. Its words are a promise that the athletes hold dear to themselves. “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”. She recites this with pride.
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