By: Addy Rogers & Nadine Hanley, Public Relations students at Pepperdine University
CHICAGO—About 100 spectators showed up to Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago, Illinois on that sweltering July afternoon in 1968. The heat left no passageway for a breeze, and the spectator’s seats felt sticky with sweat. But Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s voice reverberated through the 85,000-seat stadium, with words so powerful that they have served as the Special Olympics athlete oath for 50 years: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt.” One thousand athletes from across North America marched into the stadium for the first official Special Olympics Games.
In 1968, people with intellectual disabilities were labeled as “mentally retarded.” There was no public support, very little public awareness, and a general injustice when it came to how those with intellectual disabilities were treated. Eunice Kennedy Shriver had a dream to use the power of sports to change society’s perception of those with intellectual disabilities and to advocate for more awareness, support, and inclusion.
Although skeptics shook their heads and disregarded the games, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley spoke with visionary foresight when he said, “You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same.”
Fast forward 50 years, and Mayor Daley’s prediction couldn’t be closer to the truth. Special Olympics has become a globally-renowned organization with 4.9 million athletes in over 172 countries. Shriver’s vision has allowed hope, confidence, and courage to grow not only through competition, but by bringing people together to celebrate what we have in common rather than what is different.
From July 1-6, 2018, athletes from all corners of the country will compete in 14 Olympic-style team and individual sports during the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. Among them will be Chicago-native Allison Berggren.
“It’s thrilling,” Ali’s mother, Deborah Berggren expressed with contagious enthusiasm. “We are deeply honored that Ali has this opportunity. We are very happy that Ali was chosen to compete for Team Illinois and are proud that she’s doing such a great job as a representative for Koz Park, Team Illinois, and the greater Special Olympics community.”
This is not a story of an inspiring comeback or unpredicted victory. Rather, this is the story of an individual who has become the best expression of Shriver’s mission; an athlete with the characteristics she envisioned would change the world. Since she became part of Special Olympics back in 2006, Ali has added an irreplicable spark of light and spirit of celebration to her Koz Park team, making any practice without her obvious and unpreferable to her teammates.
“When [Ali] isn’t here, people notice,” said Megan Romberg, Ali’s coach at Koz Park. “They say, ‘Oh where’s Allison?’”
Since starting on the team, 27-year-old Ali Berggren has competed in a myriad of events including bocce ball, volleyball, track and field, basketball, and soccer. This summer she will be competing in track and field.
Ali is the first athlete from Koz Park to go to the Summer Games, and Romberg’s first athlete to qualify for the USA games.
Although Ali’s athletic career boasts many victories, including a trophy case full of medals, those who are close to her recognize that Ali has achieved so much more than just what her shelves display.
“Right when I met her she had a positive, encouraging spirit,” said Romberg. “When I think about the Special Olympics mission statement, I think about the ‘joy of giving gifts, skills, and friendships,’ which Ali definitely does. She’s constantly so happy, willing to help in whatever way possible. And, she is such a good friend.”
To Ali, Special Olympics means more than just medals. Special Olympics gives her a chance to lead, to serve, and to recognize the talents and achievements of her teammates.
According to Romberg, Ali has a positive and encouraging spirit that radiates whenever she is around. Ali and her team participated in Special Olympics’ events that took place in Indianapolis. When the competition was over, Ali went around and checked on everyone, even those who were not on her team. She congratulated the winners and encouraged those who lost.
Back at home and during her regular training with Koz Park, Ali is eager to take on extra volunteer opportunities, grabbing at any chance to be around people and make new friends.
“Every time Coach Megan asks for volunteers, Ali has stepped up even if she has to be there at six in the morning, she’s there,” said Deborah Berggren.
Most recently, Ali was appointed as one of the health messengers for Team Illinois and is in charge of making sure her teammates are making healthy nutritional choices.
“I had to go to Indianapolis with Coach Megan for training,” said Ali. “There was a lot of snow, but we made it. We stayed in a hotel and went to meetings… I met new friends from different states. We learned about the training exercises and how to eat healthily. I got a Fitbit to track my exercises. I need to walk 7,000 steps a day. When I hit 7,000, my Fitbit makes a noise. I also write a blog for the Team Illinois newsletter.”
When looking at Ali’s story, we don’t see a story of deficiency or limitations, but a story of capability and the extraordinary. To Ali, Special Olympics means more than just medals, it’s an opportunity to lead, to serve, and to appreciate the underdogs. Ali is a light in her community, an ambassador for those with intellectual disabilities. She is what Eunice Kennedy Shriver envisioned would change the world.
Every anniversary seeks to celebrate milestones and memories, and most importantly, the people that make them significant. The Special Olympics 50th anniversary is no different. Throughout its history leaders have emerged starting with Eunice Kennedy Shriver who began breaking down barriers and standing up to stigmas, and encouraging those who admired her vision to do the same.
Athletes like Ali help carry on Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s legacy by pursuing the attributes she embedded in the mission statement: promoting common ground, displaying courage, and building camaraderie wherever they go.