It seems like it’s a childhood rite of passage – afternoon baseball practice, morning swim team practice, or Saturday morning soccer games. We all did it, and we have the awkward team picture to prove it. For children who have a disability or other special need, this should be a part of their childhood too.

The beauty of inclusive sports is that it’s just that – inclusive. This isn’t a team made of all participants with special needs. It reflects society. Children learn together, live together, and they should play together.

According to researchers from the University of California at Berkley, there are two profound effects of participating in inclusive sports. First, the physically challenged athlete can grow in her motor and social skills. The confidence she gains from playing a sport will benefit her social interactions at school. The second effect is that the typical peers grow in areas we do not always focus on – empathy and compassion. The authors note, “Typical peers learn how we all face challenges in our lives, disabled or not, and that part of being a good teammate is to use your specific skill set to help others become great. This continues to break down barriers and helps these typical players grow in their leadership, compassion, and making others great.”

Recently, I had the pleasure to meet two people who participate in sports in two very different ways but for the same reason. Scott Rigsby is the first double amputee to complete an Ironman World Championship in Konia, Hawaii. Grace Callahan is a 12-year-old who receives support from our Champions for Children program.

Scott Rigsby – paving the way for inclusion

scott rigsby photo

When I met Scott Rigsby, we talked about the importance of inclusive sports. As the first double amputee to finish the Ironman Triathlon, he knows a thing or two about it. He grew up in South Georgia playing football. After an accident had changed his life forever, his love for sports helped him physically and mentally. Yes, he could have competed at the Paralympic Games, but he chose to pave the road for all athletes.

His performance acts as a motivator not only for people with disabilities but also for able-bodied athletes. In fact, the number of participants who complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-bike, and 26.2-mile run greatly increases when Scott competes. He sees this as an example of how everyone can benefit from inclusive sports. “People need to experience service. We live in a world where everyone needs help from someone. Kids need to learn that early, and inclusive sports is an excellent way to promote that,” he said.

Now, it’s not that he can just put on some shoes and go for a run. It’s an ordeal. He has specialized prosthetic legs that need adjusting throughout long runs. His legs rub against the prostheses and cause a lot of pain. When I ask him what motivates him, he responds his older brother who is deaf and physically and mentally disabled. “I am doing something that he could never do. When my skin is rubbed raw, I think of what he goes through every day.”

On a side note: His brother lives at an Easter Seals group home in Pelham, Ga.

Grace’s unstoppable heart

grace callahan photo

Grace’s nickname growing up was Amazing Grace. Her story is truly amazing. She was born on Easter Sunday 2003 and diagnosed with an enlarged heart at 11 days old. Almost seven years later, her heart was deteriorating very quickly, and she needed a heart transplant as soon as possible. The gift of a new, strong, and healthy heart on Easter Sunday 2010 let Grace live just as other little seven-year-old children, which included participating in sports.

While her surgery scar prevented her from contact sports or sparring, her parents encouraged her to participate in extracurricular activities – the more active, the better. Grace dabbled in karate, Tae Kwon Do, ballet, and gymnastics. Right now, she’s in her second season of lacrosse and is gearing up for her fifth summer swim season.

Grace plays with and competes against children of all abilities. She has a couple of accommodations, but nothing sets her too terribly apart from her peers. She needs to warm up and cool down more than her teammates and can overexert herself more easily. In fact, most of her lacrosse teammates do not know about her heart transplant.

Her parents see two primary benefits of Grace’s participation in sports: health and social. The aerobic activity helps her circulatory system, which can stave off coronary artery disease. Just as important, though, is that Grace doesn’t feel singled out for being different. She is a part of a team.

Participating in sports for Scott and Grace is more than an hour in the pool, it’s a chance to be just like everyone else – because they are.

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